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Vol. LXV, No. 45
Wednesday, November 9, 2011
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CHAT ROOM: Mitch Henderson, the new Princeton University men’s basketball head coach, answers a question last week at the program’s annual media day. Henderson, a former Tiger star and assistant coach for Northwestern, will make his head coaching debut on November 12 when the Tigers host Wagner College in the season opener.

Henderson Era Tipping Off This Weekend As PU Men’s Hoops Hosts Wagner in Opener

Bill Alden

When Sydney Johnson left the Princeton University men’s basketball program last spring after coaching the squad to an Ivy League title and a valiant loss to powerhouse Kentucky in the first round of the NCAA tournament, the Tiger players were stunned.

“You are always shocked when your head coach leaves,” said junior forward Ian Hummer at the program’s media day last Thursday, reflecting on Johnson’s move to Fairfield in early April. “We kind of saw signs coming and that prepared us for the worst.”

But Hummer and his teammates saw it as a good sign when former Tiger star Mitch Henderson ’98 left his job as assistant coach for Northwestern to return to his alma mater as Johnson’s replacement.

“Coach Henderson is a great fit,” said Hummer. “It is not too drastic of a change because it is still the Princeton offense. He will change it up and maybe speed it up a little bit. Coach Henderson has a different way of coaching. Coach Johnson liked to yell at us a lot and we loved it because he was a great coach. Coach Henderson is more mellow, the guys love him.”

The Princeton fans will get their first glance at the different approach when the Henderson era starts this Saturday as the Tigers host Wagner College at Jadwin Gym.

As Henderson looks forward to his debut, he is looking to put his own stamp on the program.

“I think we may have a slightly different approach,” said Henderson, a four-year starter at Princeton who played in the NCAA Tournament in each of his last three seasons and then started working at Northwestern in 2000 under former Princeton coach Bill Carmody.

“I see the game the way I see it. The best advice I have ever gotten is to be yourself. I am studying what is happening in practice and then adjusting to that.”

In analyzing practice, Henderson has been drawing on a special resource, Hall of Fame coach Pete Carril, who has been hanging around Jadwin Gym since he is not currently needed in his role as an assistant for the Sacramento Kings with the NBA lockout still in effect.

“It is great to have coach around; he and I talk a lot,” said Henderson. “He sees so many things; everything he says is constructive and positive. As a staff, we like to bounce things off of him. He likes this team a lot and I can see why he does, I do too.”

Coming off a 25-7 season, the Tigers certainly have a good foundation in place. Princeton returns four starters in juniors Hummer and Brendan Connolly together with seniors Douglas Davis and Patrick Saunders.

Hummer averaged 13.8 points a game last year to tie him with graduated Kareem Maddox for the team lead while Davis, a former Hun School star, scored 11.9 points a game and became the first Princeton junior to reach 1,000 points in a career since Kit Mueller ’91.

With such battle-tested talent in place, Henderson is focusing on fine-tuning things, not making wholesale changes.

“I’d like to see us shoot the ball and take more long shots because I think we are pretty good inside and it tends to open things up more,” said Henderson.

“I think last year’s team did a lot of things really well. We’d like to just continue doing those things and get better at them.”

With the graduation of inside force Maddox, the Ivy League Defensive Player of the Year and the team’s top offensive threat in the paint, Princeton will be looking to Hummer to fill some of that void.

“Ian is not having any trouble adjusting; he is comfortable with the ball in the post,” said Henderson of the 6’7, 230-pound Hummer, who averaged 6.8 rebounds a game last winter in earning second-team All-Ivy honors. “He is a basketball payer, he can adjust to new things. There are not many things that he doesn’t do well.”

While Hummer is ready to accept more responsibility, he knows he doesn’t have to be a one-man show.

“I think the team is going to step up in many different ways, players like Will Barrett and Brendan Connolly will definitely step up,” said Hummer. “So it won’t be one man taking the whole burden. I think it will be distributed pretty well.”

Hummer sees junior center Connolly as a potential breakout player this winter for the Tigers.

“In practice, he is dominating,” said Hummer of the 6’11, 255-pound Connolly, who averaged 3.2 points and 2.7 rebounds last year. .

“Basically as coach [Brian] Earl puts it, he is a mountain down low. I had the privilege of guarding him this whole practice and my body still hurts from it. He is definitely going to be one of the guys that we want to get the ball into a lot. If he keeps coming along the way he is, it is going to be very hard to stop him down low.”

Henderson also sees Connolly as an X-factor for the Tigers. “I’d look to Brendan Connolly; it is time for him in the line of Princeton centers who have a better junior year,” said Henderson.

“Where Kareem touched the ball last year, it should hopefully go to Brendan.”

Replacing graduated star guard Dan Mavraides in the backcourt could be a touchy proposition for the Tigers who will miss Mavraides’ fiery leadership and perimeter sharpshooting.

“It will be by committee,” said Henderson, who will use Davis, T.J. Bray, Jimmy Sherburne, and Chris Clement in the backcourt. “Pretty much everyone can dribble the ball a little bit so that is a good thing.”

Henderson is looking for good things from promising freshman Denton Koon.

“I would say Denton Koon is going to be a guy who is going to help us,” said Henderson.

“He is almost 6‘6; he gets to play against Ian Hummer everyday. He is fast, he dribbles, and he can make a shot. Now he has to do all those things faster just like any freshman.”

Things will come fast and furious when the Tigers host Wagner this Saturday.

“Both coach Hurleys do a good job with pressuring the ball so we want to be aware of that,” said Henderson, referring to Wagner head coach Dan Hurley and his brother and assistant, Bobby Hurley.

“They have some freshmen who are going to be sophomores and they brought in a junior college kid in who can really score. Everything is pointing towards being ready and being competitive nine days from today.”

For Henderson, the key is to be competing at a high level when the team starts league play in January.

“I think there is a lot of room here to get better,” said Henderson. “We definitely want to be playing our best basketball on January 13 [the Ivy opener at Cornell]. I would like to say we are in a pretty good spot at that point. You really need to be self critical in these moments and I ask myself the same questions I ask the guys — am I doing everything I can to prepare the guys to be the best they can be.”

In Hummer’s view, the preparation is going well. “There are always going to be some bumps in the preseason, you iron things out and get the offense down with the new variations that we have,” said Hummer.

“We have a game in about a week so we are definitely looking forward to that. I think the guys need to come along a little more, myself included. Hopefully, we can come together as team and get our first win.”

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