Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXII, No. 46
Wednesday, November 12, 2008
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RENEWAL PROJECT: Princeton University men’s basketball head coach Sydney Johnson fields questions last week at the program’s annual media day. As Johnson enters his second year at the helm of the program, he hopes that the enthusiasm his players have displayed in the preseason will help the program rebound from last season’s disappointing 7-23 record. The Tigers will take the first step in that process when they host Central Michigan University this Friday in the season opener for both teams.

PU Men’s Hoops Displaying Enthusiasm, Primed for Opener With Central Michigan

Bill Alden

The banners recently hung in the rafters of Jadwin Gym serve as a daily reminder to the Princeton University men’s basketball players of the glory that has preceded them.

Those highlights include 25 Ivy League titles, 23 NCAA Tournament appearances, a 1965 Final Four run, and an NIT championship in 1975.

For second-year Princeton head coach Sydney Johnson, a former Tiger star who helped the program win two of those Ivy crowns, the banners are a kind of roadmap as the squad looks to rebound from a 2007-08 season that was a low water mark.

Princeton plummeted to a 7-23 record, finishing last in the Ivy League for a second straight campaign and losing 20 games in a season for the first time ever.

While Johnson acknowledges that another title might not be around the corner, he wants his players to have the same high aspirations as their predecessors.

“I think you have to set a high standard for yourself, regardless of what other people expect,” said Johnson, whose team was chosen to finish last again in the league by the Ivy preseason media poll.

“If you can reach that standard, you are going to do alright in the long run. Instilling that and having the players understand that is how we are going to get to where we want to be.”

The Tigers can take the first step in that direction when they host Central Michigan University (14-17 in 2007-08) on Friday in the season opener for both teams.

As Johnson looks forward to tipping off the season, he senses a new enthusiasm around the team.

“I do like the youth, I do like the enthusiasm,” asserted Johnson. “I think that last year the guys were reading me and letting me take the lead. That’s OK but at the end of the day it’s their team in a sense. I like how this team has made its own statement; they might have a better feel for what I am asking. It’s all about them trying to have a chemistry on the floor.”

If Princeton is to make a positive statement this winter, it will have to be sharper offensively.

“We have to shoot the ball well,” said Johnson, whose team shot just .425 last winter in averaging 57.7 points a game.

“I don’t think we shot the ball well last year and that still hurts, that still stings. So this year, we have some guys who we feel can put the ball in the hole and they have to do that and I think we have a chance to win.”

Johnson is looking to junior center Zach Finley to put the ball in the hole on a more consistent basis.

“I think at times he was tremendous,” said Johnson of Finley, who averaged a team-high 10.2 points a game last year.

“Early on in the season, he was putting up 18, 16 point games and then people started to figure him out and key on him. Basically it’s consistency; as a junior, it should all start to come together. If we can ride him, I think it makes us a lot stronger.”

The Tiger offense should be spiced up by the efforts of co-captains Jason Briggs and Nick Lake.

“Briggs has an ability to get into the paint and make us a little more aggressive on the offensive end,” said Johnson, who is expecting contributions from sophomore forward Kareem Maddox together with freshmen Patrick Saunders and former Hun School star Doug Davis.

“Nick Lake is a very good catch and shoot guy. He is a tremendous cutter. He plays hard and goes for the offensive rebounds in a very aggressive way.”

A pivotal player for the Tigers could be junior Marcus Schroeder, who started the first 40 games of his Princeton career before assuming a bench role midway through last season.

“Marcus has played so many minutes; he knows our offense like the back of his hand,” said Johnson of Schroeder, who averaged 4.6 points and 2.5 assists a game last winter.

“We do want him to be aggressive in terms of looking to score and making people play him honest. He’s a guy, whether he is starting or coming off the bench, who always has to be ready to play. He has to give us the intangibles in terms of leadership.”

Although last season was humbling, Johnson still believes in the intangibles underlying the Princeton basketball experience.

“It’s hard because I really do like Princeton,” said Johnson. “When you are losing games it’s tough. I believe in the place, I believe in the program. I believe in what we coach, I believe in these young men in terms of the effort that they are giving. We lack consistency; we lack that competitive nature and that ability to close out games. I think those things will change. When we win those close games you all will see Princeton in the same way that I do. We have a lot to offer these young men; I think it is coming.

The Tigers will be hoping to pull one out this Friday when they face Central Michigan, which finished second in the Mid-American Conference’s West Division last season.

“They are a tough team, I know that they are well coached,” said Johnson.

“They play very, very hard defensively; that’s going to challenge us. That is going to disrupt our young guys who are trying to get a feel for playing at the college level. That’s going to be a serious challenge.”

Johnson, for his part, is relishing the challenges ahead. “I get excited about competing,” said Johnson. “What we see up there in the rafters is what we are trying to achieve.”

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