This first real snowfall hasn’t come yet, so it might have been a bit premature to sound the alarm, but there was Princeton coach Mitch Henderson in the postgame press conference after Sunday afternoon’s 76-67 loss at Lehigh sounding like a team on a 10-game losing streak in mid-February:
“It’s not very pretty right now. I’m at a little bit of a loss,” Henderson said.
Yes, there’s a long, long way to go in the 2016-17 campaign. But the Tigers went 22-7, 12-2 in the Ivy League last season, returned everyone, gained Hans Brase after a year injured, was slotted in at a lofty 38th nationally by the KenPom computers in the preseason, and was given a No. 9 seed in a couple of (too) early Bracketology projections, which would be the highest the Ivy League has gotten since Bill Carmody and the Tigers entered the 1998 NCAA tournament as a No. 5 seed, also the last time Princeton won an NCAA contest.
Those set up to produce some lofty expectations, and an 0-2 start was not in the script most fans had written.
But is Henderson correct to be overly concerned? Or is it way too early to look deeply into anything that the scoreboard says?
For the sake of #2BidIvy fans who won’t appear to have much fun this season, let’s consider the latter. We don’t know how good BYU will be, but if Eric Mika is half as good as he looked against the Tigers, then an 82-73 road loss will not look terrible come March, even if it doesn’t help a potential NCAA at-large cause.
The Lehigh loss is obviously more troubling, especially because the Mountain Hawks played without first-team All-Patriot League point guard Kahron Ross. But there were a couple of NBA scouts to see Lehigh center Tim Kempton play, and he didn’t disappoint with 24 points and 11 rebounds, including stepping out and going 2-2 from behind the arc (he had six career 3-pointers before Sunday). Freshman fill-in point guard Jordan Cohen missed only one shot from the floor (7-8) and scored 20 points, a performance that will be either tough to duplicate or, if it’s not, Lehigh can likely book its place in the NCAA tournament already.
Princeton did not shoot the ball particularly well in either game, especially down the stretch, and it stands to reason with a veteran team that will improve as the season progresses.
However, there is plenty for the glass half-empty crowd to chew on. A team that not only had so much returning talent but a summer trip to Italy to hone it, looked less than motivated Sunday in what should have been a chance to prove itself, especially when it found itself behind early in the second half. To be fair, the Tigers closed to within 64-63 with 2:30 left, but lacked the killer blow that a middle seed in the NCAA Tournament probably would have possessed.
“You can’t go on the road and beat a good team like Lehigh playing the way we played,” Henderson said. “Our practices frankly haven’t been very good. We’re not right. With the senior group we have, we’re going to have to figure that out.”
Henderson and his staff appear to be searching for the right combinations, but haven’t quite found it yet. Their most explosive and energetic offensive player a year ago was freshman Devin Cannady, who shot 45.9% from three for the season and 48.7% in Ivy play in addition to being 25th nationally in offensive rating. But although his numbers haven’t been terrible, Cannady – still coming off the bench – and the rest of the Tigers have not found a way to balance his prowess with the fact that everyone else on the floor can score as well. Cannady was a non-factor Sunday, scoring 5 points in 28 minutes.
The question, obviously for Henderson is whom to put Cannady in for. Spencer Weisz (second team) and Henry Caruso (first team) were both all-Ivy selections last season, and while Caruso can move to a small forward, that puts Amir Bell (6’4”) and Steven Cook (6’5”) in potential tough matchups, even in the Ivy League. Having Brase back also puts Pete Miller (3rd in the Ivy in offensive rebounding and 5th in defensive last season) in a more limited role.
Adding Brase and a more experienced Cannady to the mix has proved more difficult than observers and probably Henderson himself would have thought. Princeton has been held below 1.00 point per possession in both this season’s losses, something that happened just twice in its final 14 games a year ago, and those were the two games that cost it the Ivy title, losses at Yale and Harvard.
It’s still six weeks and two major holidays before Princeton opens Ivy League play, so there is plenty of time to work out the problems addressed above. But there is some anxiety among a fanbase who was spoiled a bit by the run the Tigers had under Pete Carril (and then Carmody) two decades ago. But the Tigers have been to the NCAA tournament just once in 13 years, and Henderson is now in his sixth season and has never taken Princeton there. Since the Tigers won their last NCAA game, three other Ivy teams (Cornell, Harvard, and Yale) have enjoyed March success and according to the preseason polls, this looked like the season Princeton has a good chance to join them. With five seniors in their eight-man rotation, there is much more urgency to get the job done. Or at least there should be.
“We just have to get back to basics and what wins games,” Cook said. “I think we may have forgotten a little bit how hard it is to win and we can’t just walk into places and expect that. We’ve been here before. We’ve lost games before. We just have to rebound. I just thought we weren’t ready to play today, and that has to change.”
It’s not time to panic just yet, Princeton fans. The Tigers still have a few more good non-conference chances to prove themselves against VCU, Cal, Saint Joseph’s, and Monmouth before opening Ivy play against Penn on Jan. 7 (thanks to a strange exam schedule, Princeton will play three Ivy games and then get two weeks off before embarking on the final 11). The talent is there, as was shown for most of last season, including a close NIT loss at Virginia Tech last March.
“We’re comfortable playing with each other. I’m not really sure,” Caruso said. “We’ll just have to figure it out.”
But as now 86 years young Carril (who was born in Bethlehem, Pa. and began his coaching career at Lehigh) could attest, having a lot of talent doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to win.