To steal a phrase from Joe Sheehan, the least important words of any preview are the last ones. As is customary, I’ll make a prediction at the bottom, but we know Championship Week is a crapshoot; the value of a preview is in setting the stage and showing how the game will be decided.
In one sense, Penn’s season shows all the benefits of the Ivy League Tournament. A slow, out-of-character start to league play didn’t kill the Quakers’ postseason hopes; instead, it raised the stakes for their stretch run, capped by an unforgettable, playoff-clinching shot by Jackson Donahue in the regular-season finale. Penn has proven it can beat really good teams (UCF, La Salle, Harvard), which will make for exciting playoff games.
In another sense, this game is everything wrong with the new postseason format. Princeton dominated the conference (including Penn, which it beat twice by a combined 24 points) and went 14-0, winning the league by four games. But to reach the NCAA tournament, they’re now on equal footing with a 6-8 team — in fact, less than equal footing, because they have to face that 6-8 team on the road.
If the Tigers play like they did over the season’s final three weeks, they won’t have trouble beating Penn anywhere — on a neutral court, at The Palestra, even on the moon. Five of their last six wins came by 15 points or more, including four road games. Princeton’s only close call in that stretch came when the league’s second-best team shot 13-28 on threes — and the Tigers still managed to eke that game out.
But playing a team of Penn’s caliber, especially on the road, doesn’t leave much margin for error. Both teams rely heavily on three-point shooting, which is a high-variance tactic. The Quakers are historically Princeton’s chief rival, and they’ve been particularly thorny in recent years, taking the Tigers down to the wire four times as underdogs from 2014-16.
14-0 is an incredible achievement in the modern Ivy League. The Tigers needed some luck to get there (three opponents had potential game-winning shots in the air), but so does any perfect team. On the heels of last year — when they were perhaps the best second-place team ever — this core is 22-2, as proven as any team in recent history. Princeton fans have to separate that accomplishment from the NCAA tournament implications, regardless of what happens this weekend.
This is a traditional Princeton Offense in some respects. The Tigers are among the nation’s most frequent three-point shooting teams — as they’ve been almost every year since the three-point line was created — and they’re once again near the bottom in two-point jumpers. They move off the ball and score on backdoor cuts. Their centers can shoot or pass well, if not necessarily both.
What’s new under Mitch Henderson is a willingness to isolate mismatches and attack them relentlessly. The Tigers’ balance means they have at least four perimeter threats on the court at all times — leaving nowhere for opponents to hide a poor defender or a second big man. Penn’s defense has been above average, but Princeton found matchups to pick on (Ryan Betley on the perimeter, Darnell Foreman in the post).
Penn can retreat into its familiar zone instead, but then it’s playing a three-point lottery against a team with four 39%+ shooters. That’s not necessarily a bad strategy — in the first meeting, the Tigers shot 16% from distance before they pulled away late. Princeton’s luck evened out in the rematch (9-14 in the first half en route to an easy victory), but you have to take chances somewhere against a 14-0 team.
Princeton held Ivy opponents to 0.90 points per possession this year, and Penn was below that mark in both meetings. The Quakers have shifted their lineup a bit since (much more Devon Goodman, a bit more Ryan Betley), but they’ll still have their hands full on offense: The Tigers’ length allows them to switch on screens, double-team post-ups, and rotate onto help assignments, all while rebounding well and avoiding fouls.
That leaves two good ways to beat the Tigers: Play inside-out, move the ball crisply, and be patient enough to out-rotate the defense; or attack with one-on-one scorers. (Harvard did both last weekend en route to 1.08 ppp, the best mark against Princeton in 2017.) Penn isn’t built to win the second way, so it’ll have to do the first.
Brodeur has been a great passer for a rookie big man, but he struggled with Princeton’s double-teams last month; he’ll have to be better on Saturday. The Quakers can help him out by getting him the ball in motion or on face-ups from the perimeter, where he can still make plays. Steve Donahue also had success playing Max Rothschild and Brodeur together to press their advantage inside, and it worked better than I expected on defense.
Mascot Battle: The Quakers are a fun nickname — they’re unique and historically intertwined with the university itself. But the actual mascot is creepy (especially in person). And if the Quakers came across an actual streak of tigers, they would be mauled. Advantage: Tigers.
The Prediction: Penn’s offense has improved by leaps and bounds over the last month, scoring above a point per possession in each of its last eight games. That means Princeton will have to outscore the Quakers on the road, not just grind out another low-scoring victory. But the Tigers have offensive talent as well, so as long as a few three-pointers fall, matchups and experience will carry them to the final. Princeton 72, Penn 66.