NEW HAVEN, Conn. – So here was the scene at Lee Amphitheather with four minutes left in the highly anticipated Princeton-Yale showdown Saturday.
Brandon Sherrod, who already has a remarkable backstory involving taking a year off to travel the world singing, was 8-8 from field. Impressive enough, right? But it was Sherrod’s third straight perfect game from the field, a streak that has reached 25, one short of the NCAA all-time record. Yale had led throughout (by as much as 16 early in the second half), and Princeton’s answer to make a late comeback?
Foul Sherrod intentionally? The guy that can’t miss a shot? With four minutes still left? It’s a bold strategy, Mitch Henderson, let’s see how it pays off for him.
“They had shown some signs of free throws being an issue coming in, and it helped us, frankly,” Henderson said. “But we didn’t expect to do it that early coming in.”
Turns out it was a darn smart move. As you probably know if you watch a few basketball games, the free throw line is a strange place on the floor, and Sherrod has not mastered it, just 54% coming into the game. In fact, Yale as a whole is just 64.4% from the line this season, 316th nationally. As the Bulldogs continued to miss, Princeton kept coming, eventually cutting the margin to three before Makai Mason hit a massive step-back three with just over a minute left (Mason, who led Yale with 22 points, also had another huge three a few minutes earlier with Princeton making a run).
— Yale All-Access (@YaleAllAccess) January 31, 2016
Still, Yale couldn’t bury the Tigers, who had the ball down three with 30 seconds left. Finally, after Henry Caruso (who led all scorers with 26 points) finally found a shot he couldn’t make, the Bulldogs could exhale with a 79-75 victory to join Columbia atop the Ivy League at 4-0. As some of Yale’s previous games had been, it was disjointed, extremely physical, and far from smooth.
Princeton tried to go for quick 2, but got zero: pic.twitter.com/toPIJbJjr0
— Ray Curren (@currenrr) January 31, 2016
But at the same time, Yale is able to be efficient offensively amidst the chaos. Against a stout Princeton defense, and even with the end of game shenanigans, the Bulldogs posted 1.09 points per possession and shot 11-19 from three-point range. Can they continue to do that through the next 10 contests and reach their first NCAA Tournament since 1962? They get Columbia (who hasn’t been to the NCAAs since 1968) Friday evening/afternoon (5 p.m.) as their next test.
“They didn’t do anything we really didn’t expect,” Yale coach James Jones said. “We shot 53 percent for the game and if we make our foul shots, we score 80-something. We didn’t do a good job from that standpoint, but I thought everything else was really great.”
What else did we learn Saturday night at a lively Lee Amphitheater?:
— Ray Curren (@currenrr) January 30, 2016
- Yale plays a beautifully ugly game
I think calling Justin Sears’ game unorthodox is fair, and it may be a reason his career doesn’t quite get the credit it does from people who see him once or twice. He seems to always be on the verge of traveling, has a hideous looking jump shot, and his post moves cannot be described as fluid or smooth. But the numbers – at both ends – usually speak for themselves, and they did Saturday: 16 points, 10 rebounds, six assists, three blocks, and three steals. Surely, Princeton is not among Sears’ doubters, he also had 52 points in two meetings with the Tigers last season.
Like Sears, Sherrod relies on strength and athleticism in the post over style, and point guard Makai Mason plays the same way: very strong and able to make shots with unusual form and angles. Although Princeton was still fighting at the end, that tends to wear on teams over 40 minutes.
“I don’t think about it while I’m playing,” Sherrod said. “Again, guys put me in good position to score and I was able to capitalize.”
— Justin Simon (@YaleCoachSimon) January 31, 2016
2) Princeton is still an Ivy contender, but it’s not a traditional Princeton squad
The Tigers did not allow an offensive rebound in the first half and moved the ball around for open threes like the teams of Princetons past would, but they got back into the game in the second half with some full-court pressure, specifically the trio of Caruso, Devin Cannady, and Aaron Young (who came from deep on the depth chart), who did not let Mason or Jack Montague breathe for 94 feet. Combined with 7-17 from three (in the half), the Tigers – who have played at a faster pace this season under Henderson (currently at 111th, highest a Princeton team has had in the KenPom era by a pretty wide margin) – did not look very Princeton-like, but they were very effective and it seemed to fit their personnel.
The question is whether that is the way Princeton wants to go for 40 minutes. The answer is probably (small sample size, but the Tigers are currently second in adjusted tempo behind Cornell in league play) yes, especially with players like Caruso, Cannady, and Amir Bell (who had eight turnovers Saturday and fouled out). As Henderson showed with the fouling strategy, he’s not afraid to mix things up, even if it flies in the face of a style that Princeton has shown for, well, forever, seemingly. If it wants realistic hopes of an Ivy title, Princeton would be wise to knock off Harvard and Dartmouth next weekend at Jadwin Gym.
3) Yale’s style can work against it
The “new” freedom of movement directive has seemed to work well, even if its consistency has been questioned a bit in the past couple of months. James Jones has not played a deep bench this season, basically going with seven players, all of them veterans. Yale doesn’t play at a fast tempo, so that part is usually fine, but the problem has been foul trouble.
Jones was forced to play nine players for 45 minutes of bench time Saturday, but got only three points out of Anthony Dallier, Sam Downey, Khaliq Ghani (who missed time with a broken nose), and freshman Sam Anderson. To be fair, Dallier and Downey both starred against Brown last week and Downey’s offensive rating in limited minutes is fifth nationally per KenPom (behind only guys like Buddy Hield and Denzel Valentine). While it was a tough night, Jones is confident those players will do the job in big spots when they need to.
Very arguably* https://t.co/uCx9akmhLz
— Samuel Downey (@Downey31) January 31, 2016
The other problem is the obvious: free throws. In games with plenty of fouls, there will be lots of free throws, and as Harvard found out the hard way Saturday vs. Columbia, they’re going to have to make enough to win, especially Sears (63.5%), Nick Victor (64.5%, still a remarkable improvement over his career average), and Sherrod.
For now, though, Yale is 4-0 in the Ivy League, and the showdown with Columbia will be Friday at 5 p.m. on Fox Sports 1, so I suggest you watch.
“Just go to sleep happy, wake up, and shoot some free throws,” Sears said.
A photo posted by Ray Curren (@goldenbally) on