Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXI, No. 45
Wednesday, November 7, 2007
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IN THE ZONE: Princeton University men’s basketball star Noah Savage locks in on a foe in action last winter. Savage, a former Hun School star and a senior team co-captain, is looking to have a big year as he plays in his final college campaign. The Tigers tip off their 2007-08 season this Sunday when they host Central Connecticut.

New Coach Johnson Promising Full Effort as PU Men’s Basketball Tips Off New Era

Bill Alden

As Sydney Johnson takes the helm of the Princeton University men’s basketball team, the 33-year-old rookie head coach will need to utilize his trademark energy and enthusiasm.

The Tigers are coming off one of the most dismal seasons in program history, going 11-17 overall and 2-12 in Ivy League play, finishing last in the league for the first time ever.

In the wake of the disappointing season, head coach Joe Scott headed west to Colorado to take the head coaching job at the University of Denver.

Scott’s hasty departure opened the position for Johnson, a former Princeton hoops star who cut his coaching teeth as a valued assistant for Tiger alum John Thompson III on the Georgetown staff.

Johnson, who helped Georgetown reach the NCAA Final Four last season, isn’t looking to reinvent the wheel as he comes home to his alma mater.

“I expect us to play hard, no ifs, ands, or buts,” said Johnson, who will make his head coaching debut on November 11 when Princeton welcomes Central Connecticut to Jadwin Gym. “We need to improve from day to day; we just need to compete.”

Johnson will be looking to his senior co-captains Kyle Koncz and Noah Savage to set a competitive tone.The 6’7 Koncz led the Tigers in scoring with 8.0 points a game despite dealing with a stress fracture in his foot for the last two months of the season.

“Kyle has been practicing hard and practicing well,” said Johnson of his forward from Strongsville, Ohio.

“I hope his injury is history. His work ethic is second to none. There have been guys here who have great talent. Kyle won’t have an NBA career but because of his effort he inspires other players.”

Savage, a former Hun School star, had an up-and-down season last winter but showed signs down the stretch of returning to the form that saw him start every game his freshman and sophomore seasons.

“Funny things happen when you’re a senior and I think Noah is starting to get it,” said Johnson. “Things are starting to come into place for him. I think he has an inner charm; the guys gravitate to him. He’s going to get a lot of minutes for us.”

Johnson is looking for some big minutes down low from sophomore Zach Finley and junior Michael Strittmatter.

“Zach is only a sophomore and he has to get more familiar with the offense,” added Johnson. “Strittmatter can shoot; he gives depth. He plays the five spot or the four spot.”

Princeton’s sophomore guards Marcus Schroeder and Lincoln Gunn were in some big spots last year as they each started every game in their debut campaign. The two also formed the starting backcourt in their high school days at De La Salle High in Concord, Calif.

Point guard Schroeder led Division I players in minutes played last season while Gunn fired in 36 three-pointers and averaged 6.3 points per game.

“Marcus is a guy who does a lot of things for the team,” said Johnson of Schroeder, who led Princeton in assists and steals last season.

“He dedicated himself in the summer to improving himself as a shooter and that’s showing up some. If we are going to be a good team, Lincoln has to shoot well from the outside.”

Seniors Matt Sargeant and Kevin Steuerer will get a chance to give the sophomores a break if they play well.

“I want them to give us depth; they have the potential to play and give the starting guards relief,” said Johnson, referring to Sargeant and Steuerer. “They are going to have to earn it, they are not going to get playing time unless they show they can help.”

Princeton’s freshmen, Bobby Foley, Kareem Maddox, and Dan Mavraides, may eventually help the Tigers this season. “All of them give us depth, they are learning our stuff,” said Johnson.

“A lot of people dwell on our system but that’s not the major thing. It’s adjusting to our expectations on and off the court. They need to be great students, that’s the first priority.”

As Johnson adjusts to the head coaching role, he will draw on what he learned from working with his mentor Thompson.

“I realize how good a coach JT III was; how he could multi-task and communicate with the players and the staff and be in the moment during games,” said Johnson.

“A lot of this place is familiar to me and that steadies me; I have a feel for what the expectations are.”

Johnson is getting a feel for his coaching staff which includes holdover Tony Newsom and former Tiger hoops standouts Brian Earl and Scott Greenman, who are both in their first year of coaching.

“It’s worked out well; I believe in going through the process together, recruiting, planning practices, whatever,” said Johnson, referring to his staff.

“It takes time to come together as a team. Brian and I have a connection. Tony is tremendous and Scott has a good feel for the program.”

Johnson knows he is facing a tough program in his opener in Central Connecticut, who went 22-12 last season on the way to winning the Northeast Conference title and making it to the NCAA tournament.

“Coach [Howie] Dickenman is tremendous,” said Johnson. “He demands that his players go hard and that’s what we do too. It’s a tournament team and that passes from year to year. We are two programs that are used to winning.”

While Johnson is loathe to make any forecast about his team’s record in the upcoming season, he believes his players will show a noticeable intensity.

“I’m not into predictions,” said Johnson. “I don’t want to limit expectations and I don’t want to put extra pressure on. It starts with playing hard and having people see that.”

This Sunday, the Jadwin faithful hope to see that kind of effort as the Johnson era begins.

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