While the Princeton University men’s hoops coach enjoyed the action as he took in the semis at the Georgia Dome, disappointment lingered over the fact that a bad weekend had cost his squad a chance at taking part in March Madness.
Coming down the homestretch of the regular season, Princeton held a one-game lead on Harvard at the top the Ivy League standings. The Tigers were at Yale and Brown on the last weekend with the regular season finale at Penn.
A sweep of the three games would have clinched the league crown and a berth in the NCAA tourney, while two wins would have ensured at least a playoff game against Harvard for the trip to March Madness.
With destiny in its hands, Princeton stumbled, losing at Yale and Brown while Harvard topped Columbia and Cornell to clinch the title and knock the Tigers out of the race.
In reflecting on the lost weekend, Henderson said his team’s struggles came down to some defensive issues and nerves.
“We were a bigger team so how we guard smaller players was an issue,” said Henderson.
“That weekend we got hurt by perimeter shooting. We couldn’t stop the flow of shots. As the games were going on, there was some tightness, which was surprising given the experience of our group.”
Going forward, Henderson and his staff will take some valuable lessons from the defeat.
“It is tough to win the league and there are a lot of good teams,” said Henderson.
“Just because you are in the hunt for the league title doesn’t mean that teams are going to roll over. We need to be as flexible as we can; we have to have many ways to play. We weren’t the best pressing team.”
Showing its character, Princeton didn’t roll over in the season finale as it topped Penn 71-58.
“It was a pretty obvious message, we needed to win for the seniors,” said Henderson, reflecting on victory at the Palestra in Philadelphia which left the Tigers with a final record of 17-11 overall and 10-4 Ivy. “It was bittersweet; we wanted to be playing for a title or a playoff.”
The Tigers do say goodbye to some stalwart seniors in Brendan Connolly, Mack Darrow, and Ian Hummer. Connolly and Darrow were solid performers, who made an impact on and off the court, while Hummer leaves as one of the greatest players in program history.
The 6’7 forward was named the Ivy League Player of the Year this season and ended his Tiger career with 1,625 points, second only for Princeton to the legendary Bill Bradley’s 2,503. This winter, Hummer became the first Tiger since Kit Mueller ’91 in 1991 to lead Princeton in a season in scoring (16.3 points per game), rebounding (6.4 rebounds per game), assists (115), and blocks (23).
“We are losing a great senior class; Ian carried us and helped us in so many ways,” said Henderson.
“We were where we were because of him. He made everyone better. There are a lot of good players in the league. We haven’t celebrated that a lot around here but it is a great award. He is one of the very special players we have ever had here.”
Harvard showed the country something about the talent of the Ivy League as the 14th-seeded Crimson upset No. 3 New Mexico in the second round of the NCAAs.
“It is good for the league, it shows how competitive it is. I like seeing teams in the league do well,” said Henderson.
“We have all the motivation that we need. We don’t talk about other teams much but it does reflect well on the league.”
Henderson believes that Princeton has the foundation in place to do well going forward.
“We are returning four starters; I like the group we have coming back,” said Henderson, who welcomes back two All-Ivy performers in junior T.J. Bray (9.9 points per game in 2012-13) and sophomore Denton Koon (10.5 points) together with junior Will Barrett (9.3 points) and freshman Hans Brase (5.4 points).
“The message is you have to keep improving but don’t lose sight of what got you into first place coming into the last weekend. You have to be hungry to make improvements; they need to focus on getting better in every way.”
The Tigers will be different in some ways from the 2012-13 squad which featured eight players 6’8 or taller.
“We will be smaller but we are still pretty big,” said Henderson, noting that such returners as Clay Wilson, Bobby Garbade, Ben Hazel, and Jimmy Sherburne could emerge as key contributors.
“It will be really competitive, good players are made over the summer. We are doing individual workouts for the rest of the spring until the end of classes.
Henderson is chomping at the bit to get back into competition. “I know I am ready to get going,” asserted Henderson.
“We want to get better and make improvements. We aren’t defined by one weekend; we did a lot of good things this winter.”