On Nov. 20, Princeton went to Lehigh and muddled its way through a mediocre performance, eventually getting nipped at the wire by a seemingly more motivated Lehigh team, 76-67. There were plenty of excuses to be had: the Tigers had just flown back from Utah and a season-opening loss to BYU, they had a poor shooting night, they were trying to figure some things out.
But head coach Mitch Henderson wasn’t really having any of it. “It’s not very pretty right now. I’m at a little bit of a loss,” he said. He went on to add later, “We’re not right. With the senior group we have, we have to figure it out.”
The puzzle wasn’t solved immediately. Two games later, they lost Hans Brase for the season with an injury and soon after Henry Caruso was gone for the season as well for the same reason. The Ivy League favorites looked and felt like anything but after consecutive losses to St. Joseph’s and Monmouth put them at 4-6 on Dec. 20.
Princeton hasn’t lost since.
Sunday’s fairly comfortable 71-59 win to take the inaugural Ivy League Tournament Sunday was the Tigers’ 19th straight, and although they’ve had to survive some nerve-wracking finishes—the most stress-inducing coming Saturday as they came back to beat Penn in overtime despite never leading in regulation—there has been little doubt they were the dominant team in the Ivy League this season. Their record, of course, proves it, 16-0 in a conference that has won three NCAA Tournament games in the past four seasons.
How did they do it? Well, as Yale coach James Jones said afterward, “Sometimes the stars align and you get Orion.”
But there’s more to it then that, of course. Myles Stephens was an easy choice to be Defensive Player of the Year in the Ivy League and even easier as Ivy Tournament Most Outstanding Player. But he averaged only 17 minutes through Princeton’s first eight games, a victim of Princeton’s deep rotation as well as coming off a freshman year where he was still learning the ropes.
Henderson also got better play out of his two top seniors: Spencer Weisz and Steven Cook, either of which could have won Ivy League MVP this season (it went to Weisz, even though we at NYC Buckets picked Cook). Like Stephens, Devin Cannady, prone to poor shot selection as a freshman sometimes, matured, leading the Ivy in turnover rate at a miniscule 8.3%.
“You have to point to the players,” Henderson said. “I thought the expectations were high, and that’s where we put them. It takes some time for everybody even for us. We were a work in progress even though we probably didn’t think we were then. We took some more hits after that, but really it was Myles and Devin’s emergence into the lineup. Things became very clear after that what we were. We had a seven-man rotation and we had a lot of really good pieces and we could play with five guards, which really helped us.”
Which leads to another key factor in Princeton’s improvement, slowing things down. With a lot of players to get in, Henderson and the Tigers pushed tempo the last two seasons, finishing 140th and 153rd, respectively, nationally in adjusted tempo. They had a similar mark until Caruso went down, but in their win streak have not played a game with more than 68 possessions (in regulation, at least), with Sunday’s final checking in at a plodding 58 possessions.
However, it has increased their focus on the defensive end and allowed players like Stephens to truly shine. The Tigers finished Ivy League play conceding an eye-popping 0.899 points per possession, a whole 0.1 ahead of second place (Harvard). Princeton will enter the NCAA Tournament 44th in defensive efficiency, its best since 2010, and second-best since KenPom started keeping track in 2002.
After a disappointing start, Henderson queried how his team could get it right. The answer? A couple of injuries allowing other players to step up, a slower tempo, and some good old-fashioned senior leadership. And the end result is another dangerous Ivy League team in the opening weekend of the NCAA Tournament.
“Last time we were undefeated, we got a five seed, right?,” Henderson said. “Yale was a 12 last season, I think the league has represented itself very well, better than any other mid-level conference. I feel very confident about our ability, and we’ll happily go wherever we need to go and represent the league well.”