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Saturday, February 11, 2006

That Freight Train You Hear

could be the Princeton Tigers' men's basketball team.

Okay, so perhaps right now at 6-12 the Tigers qualify only as the Dinky on steroids, but they are picking up speed, and quickly. (For the uninitiated, there is a short-track train that runs from the town of Princeton to the Princeton Junction Amtrak and New Jersey transit station. Officially, it's known as the PJ&B, standing for Princeton Junction and back, but the locals call it the Dinky). Last night's win, a 60-59 road win at Harvard, demonstrates that the Tigers are gathering steam.

Last weekend, I wrote about the return of "zing and oomph", which, roughly translated, means that the Tigers showed precision and determination on offense and disruptiveness on defense. At a critical time early in the second half last Friday night against Yale, the Bulldogs made a run. The Tigers of 2005 might have folded and lost by 10. The Tigers of 2006 took a cleansing breath, refocused their efforts and put a physical (and bigger) Yale team away, winning by 19. In that game, the Tigers ran their offense well, had very few possessions where they took at bad shot as the 35-second clock expired, hit their three-point shots, aced their free throws and had numerous touches on defense. The next night, the defense clamped down even further, holding what usually is a high-octane Brown team to 37 points.

Last night was something different entirely. On a night where they shot only 11-30 from behind the arc, and on a night where they once led by 9 in the first half, the Tigers found themselves down 6 with two minutes to go. The Tigers of 2005 probably would have found a way to lose this game, but the Tigers of 2006 showed they have put the disappointments of last year behind them and are moving forward with a sense of purpose. Noah Savage's jumper with less than a second to go clinched a victory for the Tigers, who, last night, played outstanding defense against the three (Harvard shot 0-7) and showed that they could win a tight game on the road.

What does this all mean?

First, the Tigers' recent success does not suggest that they are playing basketball at the same level as Penn, which is 5-0 and in first place in the Ivies. The Quakers have slashed through the Ivies the way an adventurer clears brush with a machete, while the Tigers' journey through the same terrain has at times resembled the perils of the "Night Bus" in the third Harry Potter movie. While you have to count the entire season's body of work (which gives Penn a big edge), if you look at the recent trend you'll notice that we're seeing a different Tigers' team here. Through hard work in practice, some injuries and some roster retirements, the Tigers' rotation is set and playing pretty well. That should make them a much tougher team than they were even a month ago. Still, assuming that Penn and Princeton both win tonight, Penn should be favored by at least 10 at next Tuesday's showdown at the Palestra.

Second, Joe Scott's mastery is beginning to show. By inserting walk-on and formerly end-of-the-bench player Justin Conway into his starting lineup, he has sent a message that no one can rest easy in practice, that every job is open, and that each player must give his best all the time in order to remain in the rotation. With this type of fairness, the Princeton hoops product should get better and better. The hungriest and toughest kids will get the lion's share of the minutes, and the team should only improve (assuming of course, within reason, that the talent is there). It was Conway's steal with 20 seconds to go in last night's contest that opened the gate for Savage's game-winner.

No, Tiger fans shouldn't start to shoot off firecrackers and start to strut now or at any time in the near future. Your team is still 6-12. You don't usually strut anyway, but like many fans you feel a little extra happiness when your team is faring better. Take that happiness in a small dose now and watch the rest of the journey.

Zing and oomph returned last weekend.

Clutch play showed itself last night.

The steam is gathering, regardless of whether it's attached to the Dinky or a freight train.

Whatever the mode of transportation, it looks like it's going to be an exciting ride.


Blogger Birkel said...

As a Harvard alum I take offense to everything about this post.


3:44 PM  

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