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Monday, December 31, 2007

Princeton-Monmouth, Men's Hoops

I just laughed because when I typed the headline, I wrote "Men's Hops" instead of "Men's Hoops." Unfortunately for Princeton hoops fans, the Tigers didn't show a lot of "hop" in Sunday's 59-50 loss at Monmouth, losing their tenth in a row, which ties a school record. Monmouth, in beating the Tigers, snapped a 7-game losing streak. The game really wasn't as close as the score indicated.

I'll defer to Jon Solomon's excellent "Princeton Basketball Blog" for the full recap, but I was there and have the following observations:

1. The kids at Monmouth clearly don't play for the glory of DI hoops that say the kids at Carolina do. The Monmouth gym is intimate, but my guess is that some high schools around the country put more money into their facilities than the Hawks do theirs. The plus side: the fans are really close to the action, and that was fun.

2. Why do they keep some of these gyms in the northeastern U.S. so warm, especially given that it's wintertime? Thankfully, the Monmouth fans were very hospitable, and no one looked twice at my kids' Princeton attire (a few years ago on a North Jersey beach I wore my Philadelphia Eagles' hat and was met with laser-like stares).

3. At Princeton, they give away about a dozen or so t-shirts during the game -- the cheerleaders throw them into the crowd. At Monmouth, they tossed in precisely 2.

4. Before the game, a Monmouth official approached the son of a former Princeton baseball and football standout to handle the shooting contest at halftime. Little did they know that a precious three or so years ago he helped lead his HS to the small-school state title game in Michigan (losing to Chris Webber's and Shane Battier's alma mater). In any event, the now-college junior made the layup easily, hit the foul shot on the third try, the three on his first, and then airballed a few half-court shots before (i) banking one that hit off the front of the rim and (ii) having one go in-and-out right at (or slightly after) the buzzer. Good job! The gift certificate will come in handy.

5. Okay, now for the serious stuff. First, I didn't understand Princeton's offense in the first half. Monmouth used a man-to-man defense for almost the entire first half, and I counted about four Princeton picks the entire half. The Tigers whipped the ball around the perimeter and then didn't shoot the outside shot particular well. They tried to hit an occasional cutter (usually center Zach Finley), but they didn't succeed much. Senior co-captains Kyle Koncz and Noah Savage have shown over the years they can shoot the three, but they had trouble getting open (Koncz did hit three treys in the game and had 14 points). The Tigers' best move was getting the ball inside to soph center Zach Finely, who has a fine back-to-the-basket move going to his left. He needs to work on the left hook a bit (and make it more of a "money" shot for him than it is now), but he is strong enough to get in position to take the shot. I did wonder why a sneaky quick Monmouth guard (and they had about 3 of them, and sometimes they played four guards at once) didn't drop down and try to poke the ball away when Finley did this move for what seemed to be the umpteenth time in the second half. Finley didn't show that he could go to his right, and he'll need to develop that ability, or else I fear a guard will drop down and make life tougher when he puts it on the floor. Especially in Ivy play.

6. The Tiger guards did not look particularly good, and there doesn't seem to be a consistent three-point shooter among them. They'll need that outside shooting to come from somewhere in order to free up both Finley and junior insider player Michael Strittmatter (who showed signs of having a pretty fluid game). Otherwise, opposing defenses will sag on them.

7. On the positive side, the Tigers tied the Hawks in rebounds and won the battle on the offensive glass 12-6. On the negative side, Monmouth was quicker, seemed to play with more energy and, yes, I'll say this here and risk the brickbats, the Monmouth kids seemed to want it more, or at least more enough to win the game (the battles on the glass notwithstanding, the Tigers looked more flat-footed on loose balls and the guards looked at sea at times). The final was 59-50, the Tigers got it within 6 early in the second half, but at one time Monmouth had the lead up to 17 and the Tigers really weren't in the ball game for most of the second half.

8. The Tigers don't seem to have a player who can, on a consistent basis, take over the game and make things happen. Scott Greenman was the last Tiger player who showed signs of that ability, but at that time Penn had guys named Zoller and Jaaber were much better at taking over a game for archrival Penn than Greenman was for the Tigers. Zach Finley shows signs of being able to do that from the low post, but he's not there yet. I liked what I saw of him though, despite the silly comments made by ESPN's Sean McDonough that dissed Finley during the Princeton-Duke game earlier in the year because Finley was all-state in South Dakota, prompting McDonough to remark that there are only 5 basketball players in that state. I know McDonough is well-respected, but that was a bit much (even if Princeton stunk out the joint for the first 15 minutes of the contest). Finley can play.

9. Sydney Johnson shows John Thompson-like patience on the sidelines. He doesn't yell, doesn't get into the face of his players, isn't overly annoying to the officials and seems positive and encouraging. The Tigers need plenty of patience from their coaching staff, and the Tiger faithful need to hope that Messrs. Johnson, Newsome, Earl and Greenman can recruit a squad that can summon the memories of the last Ivy team to win an NCAA basketball game -- more than ten years ago.

10. Times are tough for fans of Princeton's men's basketball team, but there not so easy in University City, either. While the Penn frosh look promising, Penn is a very young team that has had its ups and downs (and there have been many downs) this season. Two nights ago, the Quakers lost to Florida Gulf Coast, 60-30, scoring only 6 points in the first half while shooting 5.9% for the half and turning the ball over 23 times in the first half (the Quakers shot 19% for the game and had 35 turnovers). This is not Florida or Florida State we're talking about, but Florida Gulf Coast, a team that upped its record to 4-8 and is in its first year of DI play.

Yes, Ivy men's hoops fans from somewhere other than Philadelphia or Central New Jersey, there is a vacuum out there, there is a voice crying from the men's hoops trophy that's saying, "I'm available, take me, take the title, it's up for grabs." The question is, who will take the title. There's no question that the tough road to the automatic bid for the NCAA tournament runs through the two sets of back-to-back games against historic powers Penn and Princeton, but those games could prove to be more like speed bumps this year than the barricades they've proven to be over the past 35 years. Then again, it isn't as though the rest of the Ivies are tearing it up, either. Anything can happen -- and has happened, on back-to-back nights in the Ivies, and I suspect that it will be a fascinating League season this year.

All typos are mine, as always.

Have a very happy New Year!


Blogger Jon Solomon said...

You're completely correct about Princeton not having a player who can take over a game. I think Finley is the closest thing the Tigers have to a player who can get "easy" points for his team. Besides him, there are very few, if any, simple baskets to be had during the course of a game.

In the first half Princeton often used a "five outside" look where they would leave the area inside the arc open before Finley would drop down to get position. I would have understood this move more had there been additional cutters sliding into the paint before Finley made his move. It was a look I had not seen previously this season.

At this point I'd almost suggest Princeton should go inside to Finley every time down the court on offense and see what happens. If he's doubled, he can kick out. If he's in single coverage, he's going to get a shot off.

5:52 PM  
Blogger Bob said...

Great post. Living in Colorado I don't get to see as much of the Tigers as I'd like. Of course, lately that's probably a good thing. :-)

From what I have seen and heard on internet feeds, I agree with you and with Jon that Princeton lacks a go-to guy. And more than that, no disrespect to the guys on the team who by all accounts are fantastic young men, the Tigers' skill level is simply not where it needs to be to be successful.

I really like what I see from Coach Johnson on the bench, but it will be his ability to attract better players that will determine the fate of Princeton basketball.

11:24 AM  
Anonymous Dan Rydell said...

I hadn't heard Sean McDonough's disparaging comment about "only five basketball players in South Dakota." Unfortunate, especially since you can find good players all over the country and globe. Why it seems like only a short while ago Duke had some kid named Battier from Alaska and then there was that kid from China, Ming, who wasn't Mr. Basketball from Indiana or Illinois, or anything like that.

12:04 PM  
Anonymous Rod said...

Thanks for the comments. I have enjoyed your thoughts over the years. Sidney Johnson does have a better sideline demeanor than his predecessor, which for the sake of the players, I appreciate.

Regarding the lack of perimeter picks, it is interesting that coach Carrill disliked picks, but Sidney specifically mentioned that he learned to appreciate them as a pro, and wanted to use more of them.

When I saw the Tigers earlier against Central Conneticut, I thought Lincoln Gunn showed signs of being a take-charge guy. His stats of late (haven't been able to see him play) suggest that he has fallen off. Perhaps the opposition has learned that by focusing more on him the offense can be stymied.

2:03 PM  
Blogger SportsProf said...

Thanks for the comments, I appreciate them.

It will be interesting to see what happens in Ivy play, as there doesn't seem to be a clear favorite. My guess is that if a team wins 10 league games, it will win the league, and 9 could even clinch a tie.

Let's hope that the guards and forwards shoot better and with more confidence and that Zach Finley keeps on developing!

1:23 PM  

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