Tiger Men's Hoops Looks to Regain Ivy Crown Through Mixing Wily Veterans With Freshmen
By Bill Alden
When John Thompson III looks at this year's Princeton University men's basketball team, his mind drifts back to his first year at the helm of the program.
In his debut season of 2000-01, Thompson molded a group composed of veterans and freshmen into a special unit that went on an improbable dream ride to Princeton's last outright Ivy League title and NCAA tournament appearance.
"This year's team, in many ways reminds me of my first team," said Thompson, who kicks off his fourth campaign as Tiger head coach this Friday night when Princeton hosts Colgate.
"There is a mix of younger guys and freshmen. The older guys were Nate [Walton] and C.J. [Chapman] and Ed [Persia], Konrad [Wysocki] and Andre [Logan] were the bright-eyed and bushy-tailed freshmen. The older guys are going to have to show the way."
One of the key older guys for the Tigers will be co-captain Persia, who will be Princeton's trigger man as it looks to rebound from a frustrating season that saw the club knocked from its accustomed perch in the top two of the league as it posted a 16-10 (10-4 Ivy) mark in placing third behind Penn and Brown, respectively.
"It's an incredible plus to have Eddie healthy, the last two years he struggled with injuries coming into the season," said Thompson of the 6'0 Texas native who averaged 8.2 points per game last year. "He's had an extremely productive preseason. He's tough as nails and he's setting a great example for the younger players."
Another senior setting a good example is Wysocki, an intense competitor who averaged 20 minutes a game after returning from a preseason leg injury. "Konrad is looking good," said Thompson, who brings a 48-34 mark into the season.
Thompson is looking for big things from his other co-captain, junior center Judson Wallace, who finished with a rush last season scoring 20 or more points in four of Princeton's last five games last year. "The focal point of our offense is the center, everything goes through him," explained Thompson, in discussing the 6'10, 230-pound Wallace, who is currently suffering from a back injury that shouldn't keep him out of the lineup.
"There is no reason Judson can't pick up where he left off. I think he's in the same frame of mind that he showed at the end of last year. He's worked on his body."
Wallace's classmate, Will Venable, is seen by Thompson as playing a crucial role for the Tigers this year. "He will be asked to do a lot for us on both ends of the court," said Thompson of the 6'3 guard who averaged nearly 11 points a game last year and finished second on the team with 34 steals.
"He will be guarding the other team's top scorer on most nights. Will is looking very good, he just seems settled compared to last year."
Other veterans who should give the team solid minutes include 6'10 junior center Mike Stephens and 5'9 sophomore guard Scott Greenman. A wild card among the team's experienced performers is junior forward Andre Logan, who has battled injuries throughout his Princeton career and is currently sidelined with damaged tendons in his hand after a recent on-campus incident.
While the Tigers' experienced performers will ensure that the club is a factor in the Ivy race, the team's title hopes could come down to how quickly their corps of freshmen adapt to college ball.
Princeton's roster will include a bevy of newcomers including 6'1 guard Maz Schafer, 6'4 guard Edwin Buffmire, 6'6 forward Luke Owings, 6'8 forward Patrick Ekeruo, 6'6 forward Luke Friedman, 6'10 center John Reynolds, 6'7 Michael Rudnoy, and 6'8 forward/center Harrison Schaen.
"We need them to step up," said Thompson, who sees Schaefer, Owings, and Schaen as the newcomers most likely to have an early impact. "They've adjusted and adapted well so far. They're smart kids."
The freshmen will get thrown into the fire as Princeton will play its usual rigorous pre-Ivy slate, facing such national powers as Duke, Oklahoma, and Minnesota in the early weeks of the season.
"It's good to be opening at Jadwin," said Thompson, whose club will host Holy Cross on November 28 in its second game of the season. "We're playing two teams that finished strong last year. What's important about the early games is getting ready for league play."
And make no mistake, Thompson is
hoping to catch lightning in the bottle like he did in that debut
season. "Everybody has been working hard, in the summer and
the preseason," said Thompson, whose club was picked to finish
second in the league in the preseason media poll. "At the
end of the day, we want to be in a position to win the league.
That is the plan."