SportsProf

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Monday, November 29, 2010

Princeton 86 Siena 77 in Overtime

Yesterday, I saw the Princeton Tigers' men's basketball team for the first time this season. They were playing Siena, a perenially good team (with two non-blowout losses to ranked teams already this season). The game was a back-and-forth affair, played in a slower gear for much of the first 30-35 minutes, with the Tigers blowing what I thought was an eight-point lead (it might have been a six-point lead) with about 5 minutes to go thanks to a 17-4 run by Siena. Fast forward, and the Tigers were down 6 with under a minute to go.

Enter senior tri-captain Dan Mavraides, who promptly nailed a three and then got the ball with under 10 seconds to go. He made his way in front of the Tigers' bench, nailing another three with 0.8 seconds to go. That shot tied the game and sent it into overtime. To me (carrying on with the carpenter analogy), it put the final nail in the proverbial coffin. Siena pretty much relied on five good players, but they seemed spent. The Tigers outscored Siena 17-8 in the overtime, giving them a win over a good team and, importantly, another win in a close game after blowing a 20-point lead to James Madison earlier in the week and losing to Presbyterian by 1, also earlier in the week.

You can read about the game here.

Here are a few (relatively random) observations:

1. Princeton started out very slowly. Over the years, Coach Johnson's teams haven't always started their games crisply on offense, and there have been times when they pass the ball on the perimeter, the clock goes down to 10 or lower on the shot clock, and they force a shot. That happened a bunch early in the game, and it was a low-scoring affair after 10 minutes.

2. The thrust of Princeton's offense against a man-to-man defense appears to be to pound the ball inside to a big man (at least early on in the game). Basically, a big player (including southpaw sophomore forward Ian Hummer) flashes in the lane near a block, gets the ball, takes a few dribbles and tries to make a hook shot. When it works, it's beautiful, but if the Tigers were to have lost that game, they wouldn't have needed to point any further than their failure to finish many close-range shots, especially early in the game. That said, their play in this regard wasn't horrible, just inconsistent.

3. Kareem Maddox keeps on coming at you. 30 points and 10 rebounds says it all. He knows his range, is physical inside, and makes the most of his strength to get good looks at close range. For those who might offer that it's easy to score at close range, think again. Maddox worked for position, and he had some tough guys guarding him. I sat behind one of the baskets and saw him up close, and he presents a defensive challenge.

4. Some (relative) newcomers look like they're players. I'm talking about the third guard, frosh T.J. Bray, and the sophomore forward Mack Darrow. Bray is a physical guard with some size (about 6'3"), and he is aggressive out there. The same can be said for Darrow, who got some key minutes in crunch time. He has size, and he has a three-point shot. These two key bench players might be young, but they look like they have star potential.

5. Guard play remains key. Mavraides is a worker, and up close you can tell that he's the Tiger who in all likelihood spends the most time in the weight room. His three with less than a second to go was hard-earned. He worked for the shot, and it paid off. Douglas Davis still sets the tempo, and the junior guard is electric out there. Opponents won't be able to key on him; if they do, the Tigers have other weapons who can hurt you.

6. The competition for playing time on the front line must be fierce. It's a meritocracy for the Tigers. The starting center, Brendan Connelly, played only 10 minutes out of a possible 45. The five forwards who got the playing time are Hummer, Maddox, Darrow, Connelly and junior tri-captain Patrick Saunders. Hummer, Maddox and Connelly are inside bangers with some size, while Darrow and Saunders seem as comfortable on the perimeter as inside. This leaves soph forward Will Barrett, who got meaningful minutes as a freshman, on the outside looking for now. He also has very good size. The Tigers have a lot of depth in the frontcourt, and they put it to good use on Sunday.

7. The team needs to communicate better on defense, especially with help defense. Quick Siena guards and forwards went baseline too many times to count without another Tiger stepping in to block their path, and those drives led to some easy baskets. At one point, with a few minutes to go, a Siena guard blew by his defender, only to have no Tiger slide over. The player was fouled, and you could see two Tigers arguing about whose responsibility that player was once he penetrated. Before Mavraides' miracles, that snippet -- of the frustration over help defense against quicker players -- looked like the epitaph for the game. Thankfully for the Tigers, one of their captains helped pull out the game, which is what captains should do. The Tigers have an opportunity here -- to improve significantly in this area.

8. Overall prognosis. This team has a bounce in its step. It's big for the Ivies, it has depth, it has shooters, it has guys who don't hesitate to go inside, and it has leadership. This was a good confidence builder for a team from whom a lot is expected, but a lot should be. Coach Sydney Johnson has an able cast, and this team was fun to watch on Sunday.

(Also, for what it's worth, I thought that Siena's senior center, Ryan Rossiter, was the best player on the floor among many good players for both teams. He had 14 points, 21 rebounds and 3 assists. He set many screens, defended hard and showed good leadership for his team).

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