When the Princeton University men’s basketball team dropped its first four Ivy League games this season, it didn’t look like a team headed for postseason play come March.
But by going 8-2 in its next 10 Ivy games and winning its last five, including a 70-65 victory over Penn last week, Princeton will keep playing in March as it has accepted a bid to play in the 2014 College Basketball Invitational (CBI).
The Tigers, now 20-8 overall, will play at Tulane (17-16) of Conference USA on March 19 with the winner to face the victor of the Fresno State-Texas-El Paso first round matchup in the CBI quarterfinals on March 24.
In reflecting on the win over Penn, Princeton head coach Mitch Henderson lauded his players for not folding their tents when things looked bleak in February.
“I am really proud of being the coach of a team that had some reasons to pack it in,” said Henderson, noting that the team declined to play in the postseason in 2012-13 when it dropped two of its final three games to squander a chance at an Ivy title.
“It shows some caring and the culture, and where we are and where we want to be. We weren’t happy with the way things went. Everyone makes a big deal about 20 wins, I care far more about the way we have been playing defensively because earlier in the season we were an open door policy at the rim.”
In Henderson’s view, racheting up the defensive intensity sparked the reversal of fortune for the Tigers.
“I thought defensively we really made some huge adjustments,” explained Henderson.
“We were giving up almost 70 points a game. We really struggled when we were at Dartmouth. We started turning around here against Columbia at home; we didn’t get the win there. I thought at Brown and Yale, that was a terrific weekend for us defensively. To me, it is the defense.”
Another key factor in Princeton’s late surge was the play of senior guard T.J. Bray, who earned first-team All-Ivy honors this winter, averaging 18.3 points a game along with 5.0 assists and 4.8 rebounds.
“I had a front row seat at what I think is one of the finest Ivy League seasons and Princeton seasons in a long time,” asserted Henderson of Bray who ended regular season action at 995 career points.
“The consistency has been mind-boggling; every single night, win or lose, he averaged exactly 18 and 7. I had a little bit of a hand in what was said Senior Night but the 10 assists, no turnover game and the 13 assists game were great. I have said this many times, I would have cut my left arm off for games like that as a player here and I think a lot of former players feel the same way. As his coach, a player, and a fan, it was fun to watch.”
“I think we needed to see significant improvement from where we were and we did,” said Henderson. “Plus we are playing some young guys. We have a senior class which has won a lot of games here. I think the most important part of this is continuing to practice and play games in March. We just need more games, we have to play more.”
With getting to play another game virtually assuring that Bray will hit the 1,000-point mark, Henderson said that wasn’t on the minds of the senior guard and his classmates Will Barrett, Jimmy Sherburne, and Chris Clement.
“The really nice thing about T.J. is that I am probably more into that than he is,” said Henderson.
“T.J., the other seniors, and I had a lot of conversations before we did this. I was impressed and humbled by how they approach things. This isn’t where they want to be but that was the end of that conversation and let’s go forward here. This is about team, this is about Princeton basketball and I think that is the right way to think about it.”
Bray, for his part, is just thinking about getting more wins in a Princeton uniform.
“We got our 20th win, team success is way more important to me than individual success,” said Bray in the wake of the win over Penn.
“We’ll remember a 20-win season more than me winning an Ivy League scoring title or scoring 1,000 points. It is a team game, not about me so I can’t complain about that.”
Barrett believes that the seniors have positively influenced the team going forward.
“I think our class this year is a good example of never stopping,” added Barrett.
“Obviously it didn’t turn out the way we wanted it to. I don’t think we came into this season expecting to be in the position we are right now but as we have shown in the second half of the season, we didn’t stop. We kept working hard and I think that rubbed off on the younger guys a little bit, just with their work ethic and how they held themselves throughout the second half of the season.”
For Sherburne, bouncing back from the slow start to the Ivy season showed the team’s true colors.
“The 0-4 start in general was pretty deflating but we have a strong core of senior leadership and we knew that we weren’t going to go out like that,” said Sherburne.
“It was really important for us to finish on a high note because we are used to winning here. Like I have said before, we have a lot of pride and I think that showed in the second half of the Ivy season.”
Henderson vows that Princeton will play with pride when it faces the Green Wave in New Orleans.
“We are not in the big tournament but you find out at 9:30 that night who you are going to play and you do as much cramming as you can possibly do,” said Henderson.
“I know coach Conroy (Tulane head coach Ed Conroy) just over the years. His teams are always really well coached. They are trying to do what we are trying to do. They are psyched to be
playing in the postseason. We know it is a chance to play in March, which is good.”
While the self-professed basketball junkie Henderson will be keeping an eye on the NCAA tournament and March Madness, he believes the CBI can be a critical step as the Tigers look to get back to the top of the Ivy League.
“We have our own little thing going on here and that is the CBI and this is a really important tournament for us,” said Henderson, who guided the Tigers to the quarterfinals of the 2012 CBI.
“We didn’t do this just to play in the postseason, we are preparing to win. We have got our own task at hand that requires a lot of focus.”