Last season ended with a thud for the Princeton University men’s basketball team as it fell to Yale and Brown on the final regular season weekend to fall out of first place in the Ivy League and lose its shot at the league crown.
The bitter taste from those defeats, though, could sow the seeds for something special this winter as Princeton tips off its 2013-14 campaign by hosting Florida A&M on November 10.
For senior guard and team captain T.J. Bray, the memory of that meltdown spurred him to greater heights in preparing for his final college campaign.
“Last year stung really bad, I would be lying if I said I don’t think about it during every workout I did this summer,” said Bray, reflecting on a season that saw Princeton go 17-11 overall and 10-4 Ivy as Harvard went on to take the title.
“It is that extra motivation to do that last rep, that last drill, and push yourself even farther. That is not necessarily the legacy I want to leave here; luckily I have got one more year to change the way people think about me. I don’t want that last weekend to define my career.”
Bray’s classmate, senior forward Will Barrett, was likewise driven by the experience.
“The way the season ended, it motivated me every single day,” said Barrett. “I thought about it before I went to bed every night and when I woke up in the morning I still had that feeling in my stomach where it just didn’t feel right.”
Princeton head coach Mitch Henderson, for his part, views the finish as an important learning tool going forward.
“For two weeks after the season, you don’t sleep, that is how I reacted to it,” said Henderson, who is entering his third season at the helm of the Tigers and has posted an overall mark of 37-23 in his first two seasons.
“Then you watch the film a few times and you move on and you start looking forward to planning for what we have coming back. I have always been excited about what we have coming back. I don’t want to be reactionary. We are focused on the process of getting better. We might have looked forward a little bit too much in that last weekend.”
While the graduation of star Ian Hummer could give Henderson some sleepless nights, he is confident that the team has the depth to make up for the loss of Hummer, the 2013 Ivy Player of the Year who led the Tigers in scoring, rebounding, blocks, and assists.
“Ian did so many things for us but we are so different immediately,” said Henderson.
“We have six new guys and three guys who took the year off. Ben Hazel and Jimmy Sherburne factor in very heavily for us in terms of minutes. I am going to play some freshmen so it is really a different team. I am not saying that we are not going to miss Ian because we are going to. We are going to be spreading the ball around where we are less focused on one guy. We are obviously going to go with what makes us good. I think it is committee; it is what’s open.”
Henderson expects Bray (9.9 points and 3.8 resounds per game in 2012-13) to do some very good things for the Tigers this winter.
“T.J. is the heart and soul of our program and he has been for three years,” said Henderson of the 6’5 native of New Berlin, Wis. who was a second-team All-Ivy choice last season.
“He gets steals. He is an excellent Ivy League guard. He has become a driller, he is a great shooter. These guys don’t talk to each other when they come off the floor. I think it is the nature of college basketball these days but T.J. is a talker and that’s what you need. You need someone who is really going to be active and a good voice. We switch him around; we put him in different spots so that he can be vocal with different parts of the team.
The 6’10 Barrett (9.3 points and 4.7 rebounds) should be heard from a lot this winter.
“Will Barrett is our tallest player and he happens to be the second best shooter in the country,” said Henderson of Barrett, who hit on 48-for-93 three-pointers last winter for a .516 shooting percentage beyond the arc. “That is a huge advantage for us. He has a beautiful shot; he gets it off very easily.”
Henderson is looking for some inside punch from 6’8 sophomore Hans Brase (5.4 points, 4.2 rebounds) and 6’8 junior Denton Koon (10.5 points and 3.0 rebounds).
“We weren’t particularly a great rebounding team last year,” said Henderson. “I think Hans Brase is going to make a huge step. I see Denton Koon filling the void there.”
The Tigers are welcoming a class of six freshman who should fill some other holes for the team.
“I like the freshman group, they have all impressed me,” asserted Henderson.
“I am not being political when I say that. I like the group quite a bit. They have embraced the culture and what we emphasize here which is getting better and working hard. That said, I think you will see Pete Miller quite a bit. Spencer Weisz, is a good player from Seton Hall Prep who had a really nice career there. I think following in the long line of Princeton players, he really has an understanding of the game.”
Barrett, for his part, believes that the freshmen will make a nice contribution this winter.
“Coach was talking about the freshmen coming in, they have a point guard through center and every one of them is in the gym shooting every single day,” said Barrett.
“It just motivates me even more seeing younger guys like that who have the hunger and the passion. I am always in the gym with them and we are feeding off each other. That has been very helpful for me.”
In Bray’s view, the team’s veterans can help lead the way for the newcomers.
“I like what we have coming back, obviously Ian is a big loss but we have got four other starters back and a lot of guys who have played a lot of basketball for Princeton,” said Bray.
“I think we are going to be very balanced this year and I think we can beat teams in a lot of different ways.”
For Henderson, new rule changes which will lead to more fouling and increased scoring should give the Tigers additional ways to beat foes.
“I think it is going to improve scoring and I think it is going to reward teams that value skill and playing together, which we have done here for years,” said Henderson.
“I like it, I think it is great. Our guys love it too. It opens the floor but it is still going to be a physical game.”
The Tigers will have to be on their game in order to win their first league crown since the 2010-11 campaign.
“I know our guys think the league is good,” said Henderson, whose team was picked to finish fourth in the Ivy preseason media poll.
“We expect to play well and compete against everybody we play, whether it is Florida A & M, Butler on the road, or a team in our league.”