As the Princeton University men’s basketball team started this season by losing five of its first six games, junior back-up guard Jimmy Sherburne struggled to find his niche on the squad.
Sherburne got off on a down note this winter, making six turnovers in 23 minutes off the bench as Princeton fell to Wagner in its season opener.
After that inauspicious outing, Sherburne was locked to the bench, playing a total of four minutes in the Tigers’ next five games.
But impressing the Princeton coaches with his defensive prowess and improving on the offensive end, Sherburne has worked his way back into the rotation, emerging as a valuable reserve.
Last weekend, Sherburne showed how far he has come this season. On Friday, he scored six points and had three rebounds in 18 minutes as Princeton topped Yale 64-57. A day later, the 6’3, 197-pound Sherburne contributed six points on two 3-pointers and two rebounds in 16 minutes to help the Tigers rout Brown 81-47.
The victory lifted Princeton to 18-11 overall and 9-4 in Ivy League play and put it in the spoiler’s role. While Harvard finished the weekend at 12-2 in league play to knock Princeton out of the league race, the Tigers could thwart archrival Penn’s bid for a title shot. The Quakers brought an 19-11 overall record and an 11-2 Ivy mark into the foes’ annual regular season finale slated for March 6.
Mirroring the progress made by Princeton this winter as it rebounded from its shaky start, Sherburne has gained a comfort level on the court.
“It sounds like a long time ago,” said Sherburne, a native of Whitefish Bay, Wisc., reflecting on his poor performance against Wagner.
“I have been buying into what the coaching staff wants me to do. Coach [Mitch Henderson] called me a little stubborn this year and I see why he may say that. I think mostly I am starting to feel comfortable with my role.”
In assessing his improvement, Sherburne also credits the help of his fellow players.
“My teammates have faith in me and they are bringing me along too; that has been big for me,” added Sherburne, who has tallied 42 points, 30 rebounds, and 22 assists in 235 minutes of action this winter. “The more I play out there, the more I just feel that I can help out a little bit.”
Princeton head coach Henderson believes Sherburne has turned into a big help for the Tigers.
“If there is anybody on the team who cares about us doing well and winning and what he can do to help, it is Jimmy,” said Henderson.
“I ask him to do a lot of things that are hard to do in practice. I ask him to play on the scout team, I ask him to play important roles for the team and he doesn’t ever say anything so Jimmy is important for us going forward.”
Henderson liked the way his team kept playing hard against Yale as it took a 37-28 halftime lead and weathered a second half storm as the Bulldogs knotted the game at 40-40 with 12:11 remaining in regulation.
“I loved the way we played to start the game,” said Henderson, who got 18 points in the win over Yale from Ian Hummer with T.J. Bray chipping in 10 points, five rebounds, and two assists.
“This is a good Yale team with [Jeremiah] Kreisberg, [Greg] Mangano, and [Reggie] Wilhite. All three guys can score in different ways. We just got away from what we do a little bit. There was a lid on the basket. Mack Darrow’s 3-pointer on that pass from Ian put us up 43-40 and it kind of let the air out of the whole tension we were creating for ourselves.”
Junior star Hummer saw the victory over the Bulldogs as a mirror image in reverse of Princeton’s 58-54 loss at Yale in early February.
“We brought it close up at Yale and they had a few key possessions that put them over the top,” said Hummer.
“We had a couple of plays in this game that put us over the top. We are playing really good basketball. I think if we play as a team, we can make those plays at the end of the game.”
Henderson, for his part, likes the way his team has progressed even as it has fallen out of contention for the league crown.
“We are trying to treat every game as a game that is important to us and our development,” said Henderson.
“As long as we keep doing that I think we are in good shape. We haven’t really talked about what-ifs, I don’t think these guys think about it much. We are just focused on trying to get better.”
For Sherburne, focusing on getting better helped him reach a breakthrough in his Tiger career.
“During the Harvard game at home, I had a moment where I felt like I wasn’t worrying about anything else,” recalled Sherburne.
“I just felt like I was playing and I think that is important for me to just go out there and play. I felt like this is it, this is how I want to feel and it is a good feeling.”