Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXIII, No. 45
Wednesday, November 11, 2009
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ANSWERING QUESTIONS: Princeton University men’s basketball head coach Sydney Johnson makes a point at the program’s recent media day. Last winter, Johnson’s guidance helped the Tigers overcome a 2-8 start to finish 13-14 overall and 8-6 in Ivy League, good for a tie for second with Yale. Princeton will look to build on that progress as it tips off its 2009-10 season by playing at Central Michigan on November 14.

Seeking a Higher Level of Competitiveness, PU Men’s Hoops Expecting More Progress

Bill Alden

Sydney Johnson isn’t into preseason polls and doesn’t set goals based on win targets.

Instead, the Princeton University men’s basketball head coach has a more basic aim as his team opens its 2009-10 season with a game at Central Michigan on November 14.

“I have high expectations and it might be a little more than last year but it is not necessarily relative to how many games we are going to win or relative to a certain place we finish in the league,” said Johnson, speaking at the program’s media day.

“I expect nothing less than just competing and being in every ball game down the stretch; that would be a really huge step forward for us. We go into every single ball game very respectful of who we are playing but really not caring too much. We define where we can put ourselves in the last two minutes of a ball game and then we’ll see how it plays out.”

As the Tigers have gone through their preseason paces, Johnson believes the team is ahead of where it was at the same time last year.

“We actually know what we are doing; the level of preparedness is quite astonishing, if you will,” asserted Johnson, whose team was picked second in the Ivy League preseason poll.

“These guys kind of just know what we do. They have an expectation of themselves which is just as high as the coaches. There is some experience there that just allows us to move a lot faster.”

The experience of overcoming a 2-8 start last winter to finish 13-14 overall and 8-6 in Ivy League, good for a tie for second with Yale, has given the returning players a jolt of confidence.

“These guys really committed themselves and worked pretty hard and got a certain reward in terms of winning some ball games and getting some nice recognition,” said Johnson, whose team made marked progress last year in bouncing back from a tough 2007-08 season that saw Princeton go 6-23 overall and 3-11 in Ivy play.

“That certainly helps them move forward with some confidence and eagerness to take on the next challenge.”

A source of confidence for the Tigers is a battle-tested front court which features seniors Pawel Buczak and Zach Finley together with junior Kareem Maddox and sophomore Patrick Saunders.

The 6’11, 220-pound Buczak was an honorable mention All-Ivy performer last winter when he averaged 7.7 points and 4.1 rebounds a game. The 6’9 Finley chipped in 4.9 points and 4.1 rebounds with Maddox adding 5.0 points and 3.5 rebounds, and Saunders contributing 5.2 points and 3.8 rebounds.

“It is a strong position for us,” said Johnson referring to his front court. “It’ll be highly competitive. I think that the way that we are playing, where we are opening the floor up on offense and defense, will allow guys to get out there and have a chance to earn minutes.”

The quartet of senior co-captains Marcus Schroeder and Nick Lake along with junior Dan Mavaraides and sophomore Douglas Davis, a former Hun School standout, should see a lot of action in the back court.

Schroeder led Princeton in assists last season (68) and made 22-of-43 three-pointers while Davis averaged a team-high 12.3 points a game in getting named as an honorable mention All-Ivy choice. Mavraides came of of nowhere to score 10.3 points a game while Lake hit 17 three-pointers and averaged 3.6 points a game.

“Thank goodness Doug isn’t a freshman any more,” said Johnson with a laugh.

“As good as he was as a freshman, I think he’ll have a lot more certainty about what he brings to the team and what he will be successful at. Marcus is just Marcus. He is tried and true; he has been tested. Dan was a nice one for us, you just don’t see that stuff coming. Nick Lake didn’t shoot the ball as well as he did in previous years. He’s one who could come in and really be that key spot-up shooter for us.”

Johnson won’t hesitate to throw his freshmen into tight spots. The team’s group of newcomers includes forwards Ian Hummer, Will Barrett, Gus Gabel, and Mack Darrow, center Brendan Connolly, and guard Jimmy Sherburne.

“They have looked good,” said Johnson, in assessing his freshman class. “I think the obvious names of a Hummer and a Barrett come up because of talk and they have certainly backed up that talk in their high school careers. The freshmen as a group can give us a lot of depth and they might play more minutes than people expect. It will be up to our older guys to keep them at bay and we’ll see how that plays out.”

Princeton’s older guys have gone out of their way to help the newcomers adjust to the college game.

“I do see a core group of guys, basically from the top of the roster, if you will, all the way to the bottom who really enjoy playing basketball,” said Johnson.

“They are really taking to the coaching; it’s very much reflected in how they communicate to each other. You see them having basketball conversations on the court and helping each other out on the offensive end and defensive end.”

In Johnson’s view, if the Tigers are ultimately going to be in conversation for an Ivy title, they will need to get the most of the non-conference slate that precedes league play.

“We want big game experience, we like the fact that we are playing Cal-Berkeley, a team that is picked to finish first in the Pac 10 in some polls,” said Johnson whose team will be facing such major conference opponents as St. Joseph’s, George Washington, and Rutgers.

“At the same time, it is important for us to take on teams like Monmouth and Lafayette. Those are the type of challenges we are going to see in the Ivy League. I think we have a decent balance of bright lights and a bigger type of atmosphere but then also the games that better simulate what we see in the Ivy League.”

The Tigers will get their initial challenge this Saturday when they play at Central Michigan, who edged Princeton 55-53 in last year’s season opener.

“It was a close game; it had a lot to do with defense,” said Johnson. “Their defense was very good and ours wasn’t, frankly. We’d love to win; that would be the ideal scenario. But let’s get to that 38-minute mark and if we are in the ball game, we can check a box and the next box would be to win a game like that. We’ll see how many of them we can do.”

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