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Friday, January 01, 2010

Reflections on Penn and Princeton in Ivy Hoops

Two nights ago I went to see Princeton host Wagner at Jadwin Gym. The Tigers won 45-42 on a three-point play by Kareem Maddox with about 5 seconds to go. The game was tied at the half, and then coming out of the locker room the Tigers looked asleep. Wagner went on a big run to go up 34-22, and then with about 10 minutes to go, the Tigers pressed and took Wagner out of its game. Before then, Wagner pounded the ball inside to its senior center, with good results. The press disrupted Wagner, the Tigers went on a run of their own, got 21 points from junior guard Dan Mavriades (the only Tiger who shot the ball consistently that night) and held on to beat a terrible Wagner team. For the complete writeup, please, as always, consult the Princeton Basketball blog.

A few observations about that game:

1. Wagner coach Mike Deane looks about 75 years old. He's about 57, and I don't know if he's had health problems or this season has aged him. But he sounds like an old grouch out there. I predicted to my son five minutes into the game that Deane would draw a technical foul, and I was right -- he got one in the second half. It's hard to see how a recruit would be interested in joining this program if he had a choice of other DI schools. Deane should change gears every once in a while.

2. Princeton looked asleep for a good part of the game. In the first half, I saw the most energy from two freshmen, Ian Hummer and Will Barrett. Hummer had a spectacular block, and Barrett showed great energy following up a missed shot. Both have some size, and that bodes well for the Tigers.

3. The Tigers' offense looked better than last year's, in that they took very few shots with five seconds or less remaining on the shot clock. In the early days of Coach Sydney Johnson, the offense looked disorganized, and the team took quite a few bad shots with the shot clock about to expire. That's the good news. The bad news is that the offense still doesn't look crisp enough against a zone defense, as the players are thinking enough about what they should do with the ball in advance of their getting it. As a result, a player gets the ball, holds it for a few seconds, allowing the defense to catch up, or he'll take two dribbles, the defense catches up and then he'll pass the ball to someone too far away from the basket to shoot. If you watch the elite teams, they zip the ball around quick to try to take advantage of an overload or a mismatch. The Tigers' offense against the zone was too predictable, too undisciplined and too unconfident to paste a team like Wagner, which, from all accounts, was ripe for a shellacking.

4. Frosh guard Jimmy Sherburne didn't have his best night, made some bad decisions and turned the ball over too many times in the short time he was out there. He displayed good energy and looked quick, but he has to make better decisions.

5. I don't understand the coaching huddle that Coach Johnson has with his assistants after a timeout. They walk to the middle of the floor and talk for 20-30 seconds, leaving the players by themselves, standing around. To me, that's wasted time. Coach Johnson might want to be inclusive and build consensus, but I would think that he'd be conferring with his assistants and then know precisely what to say during a timeout. Maybe it's just a matter of style, and that's it.

6. Overall, Princeton was lucky to escape with a win over a bad opponent. Yes, I'm speaking with Pete Carril-like frankness, but the average long-term fan shouldn't get overly optimistic about this team's chances in the Ivies. The team doesn't look like it has solid leadership yet, and it doesn't look like it knows how to execute a game plan with great precision and put an opponent away consistently. Yes, they've had their share of wins, and that's all good, but they'll need to do more to beat Cornell and Harvard.

As for Penn . . .

When the wheels fall off the bus, they really fall of the bus. I watched most of the Penn-Duke game last night on ESPN2, and while they say that no publicity is bad publicity, whoever offered that wisdom didn't see its team lose 114-55 on national television. Yes, Penn was without Tyler Bernardini, its sharpshooting forward, and Mike Howlett, its leading rebounder, but even if it had those two guys it still probably would have lost by 35 or more. Interim coach Jerome Allen substituted freely, and, overall, the Quakers looked lost. The forwards looked mostly interchangeable, one-time top prospect Darren Smith looks rusty at guard, and outside of soph guard Zack Rosen (who might be wondering why he turned down Harvard two years ago), no one on the Quakers looked all that special. Penn has some talent, and my guess is that when the Ivy season starts, Coach Allen will have an eight- or nine-person rotation and the Quakers will finish somewhere in the middle of the Ivy pack. But, right now, Penn is a very-hard-to-believe 0-9, lost and looking for answers.

It can take decades to build a top brand. It can take only a few seasons with the wrong coach at the wrong time to wound it enough to knock a team from a preeminent perch into the ranks of the also-rans. But that's precisely what has happened at Princeton and Penn at around the same time. The Tigers look to be (somewhat) on the rebound, while it's tough to figure whether Penn's hit bottom yet or whether the Quakers will continue their fall, at least for a little while longer.


Anonymous Jon Solomon said...

I thought that for the first game of his collegiate career, Sherburne looked just fine. He had one turnover in 11 minutes.

Johnson certainly picked up the "coaches huddle before the team huddle" from his former employer, John Thompson III.

10:39 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I enjoy this blog and your continued interest in Princeton athletics. I would make three quick points:
1. This is hardly the first season in which Princeton does not look sharp after a long layoff, I remember that happening way back to the Carril era. This is not a good thing, but it is hardly unprecedented.

2. Jon is, in my view, correct to ntoe that Sherburne, a frosh, was in his first game after being out due to injury. Your critique, I must gently say, reads unfairly by failing to note this.

3. I am surprised by your puzzlement at the coaches' huddle. It is not just JTIII who does this, I have seen a number of college coaches over the years do the same thing--consult their assistants before talking to the teamin a Timeout.

It will be Cornell and Harvard at the top of the pile this year.

11:31 PM  
Blogger SportsProf said...

Thanks, guys, for your comments.

Noted re Sherburne. The freshmen as a group showed great energy.

As for the coaches' huddle, perhaps the logic is to let the players cool off before the coaches start talking with them. Hard to argue with John Thompson's success.

Good win over St. Joe's on the road. Sure, it's not a very good Hawks' team, but beating a Big Five team on the road is an accomplishment.

3:36 PM  

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