SportsProf

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Saturday, February 04, 2006

Princeton 66 Yale 49 -- The Return of Zing and Oomph

Last year, as what had promised to be a special Princeton men's basketball season slid off the precipice into the Tigers' only losing season in the Ivies in the Ancient Eight's 50 years of existence, I wrote that the team had played without zing and oomph. What I meant, basically, was that the team didn't play with crispness and unity of purpose that, had they did, would have propelled it into contention for an Ivy title (after all, they did have two returning first-team all-Ivy players). Defensive assignments were blown, the players didn't seem to be in sync, and passes, the hallmark of the Princeton offense, weren't crisp. It was a disappointing season, to say the least.

This year, of course, hasn't been much better for the Tigers. They started the season 3-12, have been unable to find the right combination, lost those two one-time first-team all-Ivy selections to graduation (remember Judson Wallace and Will Venable?), have only one senior (captain and PG Scott Greenman), have only one point guard (Greenman), cut two juniors (John Reynolds and Michael Rudoy), had a third quit (Max Schafer), and had a frosh quit as well (Noah Levine). A talented soph, whose return to the team after a year off gave the Tiger faithful hope of dominance on the glass and at the defensive end, languishes on the bench, apparently unable to crack Joe Scott's code and figure out what is expected (Harrison Schaen). The ultimate ignominy was a loss to DIII Carnegie-Mellon, whose hoops claim to fame up until that point was that it's the alma mater of N.C. State coach Herb Sendek. And, of course, some of the 12 losses were lopsided. Woefully, so.

No zing, no oomph.

Coach Joe Scott has tinkered with his lineups in a significant way this season, looking hard to find the right combinations of players to make the vaunted Princeton system work. (In stark contrast, Yale coach James Jones plays many more players in a game, sometimes substituting 3 and 4 players at a time). Two players who started most of the first ten games, frosh Geoff Kestler and junior walk-on Patrick Ekeruo, now sit at the end of the bench and only get off it to cheer for teammates. Soph walk-on PG Kevin Steuer, who played meaningful minutes in December and got a few starts when Greenman, the lone bona fide ballhandler on the team, hurt his back, likewise finds himself in Tiger Siberia, and frosh swingman Alex Okafor, once part of the rotation, finds himself in hoops no man's land now too. It's not automatic that his number will get called, and he didn't play last night. Soph 2G Matt Sargeant, who started many games last season but who suffered from an ankle injury earlier this year, also is glued to the bench. And the talented soph, Schaen, is at the bottom of the rotation. He missed last Sunday's Davidson game because of stomach flu, and it wasn't clear last night if he was too worn out to play or just didn't get in the game.

But it's the journey, people tell themselves, especially if at a certain time in their lives the trip is a rough one (those in Manhattan penthouses drinking Opus 1 with courtside seats at the Garden might contend that the destination is pretty good). Last night, during an itinerary that has thrown up more walls, fences and roadblocks than the former Soviet Union did during the Cold War, the Tigers, at least for the moment, measured their opponents but good and came up with a win to which the Jadwin faithful used to be accustomed, putting away their visitors from New Haven 66-49.

Joe Scott's starting five last night consisted of four forwards and one guard. Three of the forwards were sophs Noah Savage and Kyle Koncz and junior Luke Owings. The fourth, another walk-on, is 6'4" junior Justin Conway, who had the tough task of playing center in the Tiger offense and, when the Tiger zone matched up a bit, guarded 6'10" Yale center Dominick Martin, a one-time Princeton player, on defense. The only other Tigers who found their way into the game were 6'4" 2G Edwin Buffmire, playing the role of the sixth man, and 6'8" frosh center Michael Strittmatter, who played a key role mid-way through the second half.

Yale plays a physical game. Its coach, James Jones, prides himself on his team's physical conditioning, and at least one player, F Sam Kaplan, looks like he could play TE on the Yale football team (interestingly, it is Kaplan who probably has the best hoops sense among the Yale players). Jones played a total of 12 players in the game (Princeton played 7), but it isn't clear whether, like Scott, he's looking to find a combination of seven or eight guys who can bring him victories. Typically, no Yale hoopster averages more than 26 minutes in a contest, and while it's neat to watch the substitution patterns, Yale didn't seem to develop any continuity in the first half last night.

For Princeton, the story was PG Scott Greenman. Always known to put his game into an extra gear down the home stretch, the senior got into that gear early in the contest. Some coaches keeps stats on defensive touches as a sign of success, the touch being, well, when a defensive player touches the ball. Greenman must have had ten touches last night. A dervish on defense, he was a star on offense, scoring a career-high 27 points. Yale, one of the slowest teams I have seen in a long time, just didn't have the quickness to keep up with him.

After a back-and-forth first half, the Tigers led by 27-21 and played particularly well near the end of the half. Yet, about twenty minutes later. . .

The beginning of the second half portended disaster for the Tigers. Princeton was whistled for three quick fouls to start the half (indeed, with eight minutes to go, both teams were shooting one-and-ones, and with about three to go each team had 10 fouls in the second half), and Yale erased its halftime deficit and got up about three points or so on the Tigers with about 15 minutes to play. Tiger fans, of whom there weren't many because the students were on break (in fact, a buddy of mine and I sat at center court in the student section, getting a great view of the game), got nervous. This was make-or-break time for the Tigers -- what would they do?

What they did, I think, was figure out who the first seven players in their rotation are. The starting five plus Buffmire (three blocks on the night) and Strittmatter form that rotation, and the most effective unit on the floor proved to be Strittmatter at center, Owings and Koncz at forwards, Greenman and Buffmire at guards (Savage was saddled with four fouls). When that unit was out there, they played with a fire of Princeton teams past. They clawed at Yale, and they worked the ball with zing and oomph. They challenged Yale on defense, fronted the Elis when they tried to pound the ball inside, stole the ball, blocked shots, tied up the opposition. Dominick Martin, the senior center, looked like a statue out there a good part of the time (a dunking one, as he had one dunk but otherwise didn't look any better than when he was a frosh in Tigertown five years ago). On offense, they moved the ball with precision, found the open man, didn't stall, didn't look lost, and only had a few bad offensive sets.

What I saw in the last fourteen minutes of the game was a unit working in sync. To use a few baseball analogies, if Greenman was the starting pitcher who gave you almost a complete game, frosh center Michael Strittmatter was the reliever who came in with the bases loaded and turned the tide by getting the other side out when they were threatening. The frosh center hit a pair of threes mid-way in the second half that said to Yale "if you guard the other guys tightly, the rest of us can bury you too." Old-time baseball scouts rate prospects on many factors, and one of them is whether they have "the good face." Translated, that means that they try to determine whether they can picture the prospect in a Major League uniform, and whether he has the sense of purpose to help a team win. If you looked in Michael Strittmatter's eyes last night, you saw an intensity and fire that you saw in kids during the days Pete Carril coached the team. The kid wanted it. He may be thin, he may need some work in the weight room, but he is a keeper. His threes put the dagger into the Bulldogs.

Ultimately, the Tigers' active defense, 10-20 shooting from behind the arc and amazing foul shooting (they shot 18-20 during the game, while Yale shot a plum-awful 7-19) helped them overcome a Yale team that had no answers for breaking down the Tigers' defense other than hitting an occasional three. Yale does have 10 guys on their roster who are 6'6" or taller, and most of them got into the game. They were good in getting the ball inside at times, but they couldn't do so with enough frequency to overcome the Tigers. I'm sure that the 11-8 Bulldogs were surprised at Princeton's cohesiveness, and the Tigers sent a message last night that while they now may only be 4-12, the road to a title through Jadwin Gym for any opponent won't be a smooth one.

Here are some other observations:

1. Well, oil may be at $68 and the nation may be addicted to it, but the way they heat Jadwin Gym, which is a cavernous facility, you wouldn't know it. 25 years ago, the place was drafty. Last night, it was very warm in there. The Princeton endowment must be doing very well indeed.

2. You have to give Coach Joe Scott a lot of credit for sticking to his principles and continuing his level of intensity. Lesser men would have given up; not this guy. He looks like he's a little thin, even for a guy in good shape, so the losing must have taken some toll on him. Hopefully he hit Thomas Sweet's last night after the game for a milkshake or two.

3. The Princeton forwards -- Savage, Koncz and Owings -- all play similar games. Savage is the only one who can penetrate, and he's a grittier player, but none of them are the most athletic. That said, they combined to be effective last night, and all are pretty good shooters. They're a bit enigmatic, but if they get into gear, they're effective. Savage sat for most of the second half last night, owing to the fact that Koncz and Owings were playing better than he (and he got into some foul trouble). Believe it or not, the Tigers have some good depth here.

4. Junior walk-on forward Justin Conway is testimony to the fact that hard work pays off. The Tiger roster has about 15 players on it, only one of whom is a senior. Conway started the Davidson game and played 33 minutes, and he started last night and played 30, this after not getting off the pine for most of the season. He had a nice drive from near the top of the key in the second half, and he mixes it up pretty well. He is a bit overmatched out there and had a few too many turnovers at key times (4 of the Tigers 10 in the game), especially getting his pocket picked from behind. My guess is that he'll protect the ball better in future games, but having a 6'4" kid at center won't always work, even in the Ivies. In order to take their game to a higher level, the Tigers will need Strittmatter to emerge even more and take minutes away from Conway.

5. The Tigers have 5 incoming recruits and 14 players coming back next year, meaning that competition for roster spots and playing time will be fierce. I don't know who the ballhandlers will be on next year's squad, but there will be ample playing time for them as Scott Greenman will leave big shoes to fill (he played the entire game last night). One thing is clear -- Joe Scott won't give you playing time because you were a big HS recruit or because he knows your HS coach or because your dad played well somewhere or for any other reason than you work hard and earn your time. Patrick Ekeruo and Justin Conway are testimony to that, as, in the converse, Harrison Schaen.

6. One game, of course, doesn't a season make, and it isn't as though the somewhat subdued Tiger crowd ran outside Jadwin and lit off firecrackers after the victory. But teams of kids build on their successes, and I think the young Brown Bruins will be in for a tough game tonight at a place where they've only won once in the past 50 years.

7. Yale's Sam Kaplan is a player I'd take in a heartbeat. He's a gritty player who, for all of his bulk, is a good passer and team player. Some of the Yale kids showed good shooting ability, but soph PG Eric Flato is a bit slow-footed on offense and should suffer numerous steals at the hands of Penn's Ibby Jaaber tonight at the Palestra.

8. Numbers: Rebounding, Princeton 28-23. Assists/Turnovers, Princeton 16-10, Yale 10-11.

9. Princeton shot 19-40 on the game, 10-20 from behind the arc and 18-20 from the foul line. Yale went 19-42, 4-13 and 7-19, which shows you that three-point shooting and foul shooting decided this contest. Look, you're not going to shoot 35% from behind the arc every night, but Yale should have made at least 5 more foul shots. Had they done so, they would have stayed in the game for a longer period of time.

4 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Overall, a nice description of the Princeton-Yale game. However, the description of former starters who now languish on the bench is really unfair. Kestler is hurt, and might be done for the year. Same with Okafor, who had been playing with a broken finger on his shooting hand and may still have season-ending surgery. Schaen didn't travel to Davidson because of a stomach flu, and potentially wasn't ready for significant minutes against Yale. Also, while it's true that Steuerer got most of the playing time when Greenman was hurt, keep in mind that it was Steuerer, not Greenman, who was the PG for the Monmouth and Carnegie Mellon games.

11:18 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

People somestimes forget that Pete Carril was often inscrutable in terms of the guys who ended up playing significant minutes. There is a long list of high profile recruits who barely saw the floor over their four years and another long list of guys who came out of nowhere to be key contributors.

I'm hopeful that Scott will commit to this rotation, if for no other reason than to let the unit gel through the season.

2:57 PM  
Anonymous escort45 said...

Any win over Yale is a good win. Yale gave Penn a decent battle at the Palestra the next night, and Penn needed a 22-3 run to take control of the game. Can the Tigers make it close on Valentine's Day when they travel to Penn? I would think the Tigers will have to shoot the lights out to win at the Palestra.

10:51 AM  
Blogger SportsProf said...

Thanks for your comments, I appreciate them all.

Good insight regarding Kestler and Okafor; no wonder why Kestler looks somewhat sad sitting at the end of the bench.

It is good to see a rotation established, and it's neat to see a 6'4" center and the coach's confidence in him. Not sure this will work in the long-term, but the Tigers' defense this past weekend excelled.

As for playing Penn either in Jadwin or at the Palestra, a lot will have to go right for the Tigers to win. First, you have 5'9" PG Scott Greenman guarding a much more confident than previously PG in Eric Osmundsen, who is 6'5". Big edge to Penn there. Ibby Jaaber is the best player in the Ivies, and he'll give someone fits, although Edwin Buffmire is tough. Inside, the Quakers are less daunting, but their chemistry is transcendant this year. They'll get up for Princeton, and the Tigers will have to shoot and defend the way they did against Yale to have a good chance of winning.

12:10 PM  

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