Coming Off Historic Ivy Title Campaign, Tiger Men’s Basketball Hungry for More
STARTING POINT: Princeton University men’s basketball head coach Mitch Henderson makes a point at the program’s media day last Thursday as Tiger stars, from left, Myles Stephens, Amir Bell, and Devin Cannady listen intently. Princeton, which ran the table last winter in Ivy League play, going 14-0 in regular season action and then winning the league’s inaugural postseason tournament, starts its 2017-18 season by playing at Butler in November 12. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)
By Bill Alden
Sparked by a pair of senior stars, Steven Cook and Spencer Weisz, the Princeton University men’s basketball team ran the table last winter in Ivy League play, going 14-0 in regular season action and then winning the league’s inaugural postseason tournament.
While the graduation of Cook and Weisz leaves a void in terms of leadership and production from a team that went 23-7 overall last winter and fell 60-58 to Notre Dame in the first round of the NCAA tournament, the cupboard isn’t bare.
The Tigers boast the return of three stars in senior guard Amir Bell (6.6 points and 2.4 rebounds last winter) along with junior Myles Stephens (12.5 points, 4.6 rebounds) and Devin Cannady (13.4 points, 3.6 rebounds) who figure to play key roles as Princeton goes for a title repeat.
With the Tigers opening their 2017-18 season at Butler on November 12, Princeton head coach Mitch Henderson sees potential for big things this winter.
“We lost a lot of minutes,” said Henderson, speaking at the program’s recently-held media day.
“It is a different kind of team but I think we could be equally as good, if not better, in some areas, including defensively.”
Henderson credits Stephens with having a major impact at the defensive end.
“Myles Stephens is able to guard other teams’ best players and that gives you an opportunity to be in any game,” asserted Henderson, who welcomes back senior Mike LeBlanc (0.8 points, 0.3 rebounds), sophomore Will Gladson (2.3 points, 1.1 rebounds), senior Alec Brennan (2.3 points, 1.3 rebounds), sophomore Richmond Aririguzoh (1.5 points, 1.0 rebounds), and junior Noah Bramlage (0.7 points, 0.5 rebounds) in the frontcourt. “Everybody has really good players.”
The Tigers are aiming to be well-rounded. “Our goals are where they have always been,” said Henderson, whose backcourt will include sophomore Jose Morales (1.1 points, 0.4 rebounds), senior Aaron Young (1.5 points, 0.5 rebounds), and junior Elias Berbari in addition to Bell, Cannady, and Stephens.
“We have got to defend and make sure that we are making each other better on each possession. I am encouraged; I really like what we are seeing.”
Henderson likes what he is seeing from the squad’s rookies. “As far as freshmen go, it is as good of a group as we have had since I have been here and we have had some really great groups,” said Henderson, whose corps of newcomers includes Charlie Bagin, Ryan Schwieger, Jerome Desrosiers, Elijah Barnes, and Sebastian Much.
“They have made themselves coachable. They are listening, they are asking for input from these guys, which is all you can ask for. They are willing to go through that together as a group. I think all of them are going to be helpful.”
Stephens, for his part, is looking to help the newcomers find their way.
“We have a lot of young guys on the team that are going to contribute and play significant minutes,” said Stephens.
“I like the direction things are going right now. We are just pulling guys along and getting them used to how we know how to play and how we want to imprint games.”
In Cannady’s view, he and classmate Stephens can make a major imprint on the season.
“We are stepping into a role as juniors where we see that our actions on the court and giving max effort in every practice is in and of itself a kind of leadership,” said Cannady.
“That is something we have grown together, learning how to do. We came in here as freshmen not knowing anything about the Princeton offense. All I had done before was pick and rolls and shoot threes and now were are cutting and moving the ball. We were both learning that as freshmen and as sophomores, we both took on different roles and expanded those roles. Now we are leaders.”
The loss to Notre Dame in the NCAA tourney, which saw Cannady’s attempt for a game-winning three-pointer at the buzzer just miss, has helped focus the returning players.
“We remember the whole game; I specifically remember the shot and that has been fuel to the fire in the offseason and coming into this year,” said Cannady.
“Knowing where we have been and that we were one shot away, one play away; the goal is to get back there and to win games in the tournament. That has been motivation in the offseason.”
Bell is bringing a special motivation into his senior season. “I know how hard it is to win, it is not going to be easy,” said Bell.
“So it is just trying to stress that in practice and knowing every day that we have to compete and we have to bring our best.”
Henderson is hoping that a tough non-conference schedule will bring out the best in his team.
“We wanted to be challenged; last year we played a difficult schedule and this is even more difficult,” said Henderson.
“It is one of the most difficult schedules we have played in over 20 years. We are on the road in some really difficult places to play. We talked about this a lot. This is a goal of ours, to use the non-conference season as an opportunity to get better to prepare us for the league. This group has bigger goals in mind, which I really like.”
Noting that he had to make big changes to his rotation last year due to some early-season injuries, Henderson is excited to see how things fit together this winter.
“What I learned from a year ago is that you don’t make your mind up,” said Henderson.
“Watching and seeing where we are now, there are a lot of pieces. I am looking forward to it.”