January 2, 2019

Princeton Men’s Basketball Hitting Its Stride, Looking Forward to Ivy Opener Against Penn

ROSY OUTLOOK: Princeton University men’s basketball player Jerome Desrosiers posts up a foe in recent action. Sophomore forward Desrosiers has been a spark off the bench as Princeton went into its holiday break with a 6-5 record. The Tigers were slated to return to action by playing at No. 17 Arizona State on December 29 and then hosting Penn on January 5 in the Ivy League opener for both teams. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

By Justin Feil

Mitch Henderson is expecting a Happy New Year.

His Princeton University men’s basketball team has found an identity, solidified its rotation, is nearly at full strength, and has been progressing consistently all season as it heads into Ivy League play.

“The main thing is we’re hitting our stride and we’re getting into the league,” said Henderson, who is in his eighth season as the Princeton head coach. “We’ve got to be hitting our stride now.”

Henderson’s squad improved to 6-5 with an 81-79 win over Lafayette on December 21 and are slated to play at No. 17 Arizona State on December 29 in their final non-conference game before Ivy play. Princeton will host defending Ivy League champion Penn on January 5 and then the arch rivals will turn around and play each other in Philadelphia one week later on January 12.

“The schedule is very difficult up front,” said Henderson. “That’s why we scheduled difficult teams non-conference. I’ve told the guys no matter what happens, we have to have a steady approach to our work. The ups and downs, what we learned a year ago when we lost four overtime games in the league so it can be a cruel twist, is you’ve got to make progress toward finishing plays, making the toughest plays seem routine, and learning how to close games out. That’s going to be the key once we hit league games.”

Princeton is feeling a lot better about its chances after it gained the services of highly touted freshman Jaelin Llewellyn. The point guard was injured the first seven games of the season, but immediately made an impact upon his return. He debuted with 17 points and four assists against St. John’s on December 9 and followed it up with 22 points and eight assists in Princeton’s 85-81 comeback win over Iona on December 15.

“It’s an adjustment for anybody,” said Henderson. “Devin [Cannady] missed a couple games and he came back and his first game was against FDU. Not only are you adjusting to the game as a player and person, dealing with the thoughts running through your head the whole game, but your teammates are adjusting to you. There’s rhythm with each team, and when you add someone in who’s playing a significant amount of minutes, seeing what combinations are going well, what Jaelin brings to the table, we’re instantly different as a team in a very positive way.”

The Tigers have seen their lineup meshing over the two weeks since Llewellyn joined the starters. He came back for a particularly difficult stretch with games against St. John’s, then Iona, then road games at No. 2 Duke (a 101-50 loss on December 18) and Lafayette before challenging Arizona State.

“We had a really nice win over Iona, where I thought Jaelin was just terrific and the team came back from being down,” said Henderson.

“And then Duke is so talented, I don’t know if I’ve seen a more talented team in all my years of coaching, and I’m not throwing that game out the window but you take from that game what you can learn from it and you move on. I was really happy with the way the guys performed after that at Lafayette, and I think the guys are coming together.”

The Princeton players can point to its win over Lafayette as proof of how they are fitting together better and
working more in unison. Senior star Cannady led Princeton with 24 points and had 11 rebounds for his second career double-double, and the Tigers saw five starters reach double figures in points. Senior Myles Stephens and junior Richmond Aririguzoh had 14 points apiece, Llewellyn scored 11 points and junior Jose Morales had 10 points.

“I take real positives away from that,” said Henderson. “And Jerome Desrosiers didn’t play a lot, but he got seven rebounds off the bench. That’s what we need to look like going forward – we had a balanced attack and Devin has been scoring a lot, and Myles Stephens is a proven scorer, but I think the key in our league to being really good is to have balanced scoring.”

The emergence of the 6’9 Aririguzoh as a consistent scoring threat has made a big difference for the Tigers.

“The biggest change in our program is Richmond,” added Henderson of Aririguzoh, who is averaging 9.5 points and 4.8 rebounds a game. “He solidified an interior presence for our program and he’s done it through sheer elbow grease and hard work. There’s nothing that we’ve asked him to do that he hasn’t come through, and he epitomizes what we want the program to be about and he’s put his time in.”

Aririguzoh is part of a substantial local connection in the Princeton starting lineup. He played at Trenton Catholic, Stephens grew up in nearby Lawrenceville, and Morales spent a post-graduate season at The Hun School. They are part of a group that is leading a Tigers team that has settled into their roles.

“I feel good,” said Henderson of the substitution rotations. “We’re not searching for an identity, but we need to make our identity more well known to everybody around us. Jose Morales has proven he can consistently play 20-30 minutes and be productive. What we need is who’s going to come off the bench and play important roles for our program in terms of getting rebounds and staying disciplined and who can we count on, guys like Sebastian (Much) and Jerome and Ryan Schwieger. We’d like to get Will Gladson healthy because he’s played significant minutes for our program.”

Gladson, a 6’10 junior forward, can bring size and skill to the Tigers, but he’s missed the last two games – the loss to Duke on and the win over Lafayette and has missed four games total.

“We monitor him game to game,” Henderson said. “He’s had some time to rest in the last couple weeks and we’re hopeful that helps him. It seems to do the trick.”

Princeton will need to have every weapon available when it starts Ivy play. They have three players averaging double figures led by Cannady’s 20.1 point per game average with Llewellyn at 14.5 and Stephens averaging 13.9. The Tigers will need balanced scoring and stingier defense to finish as one of the top four teams at the end of the regular season to advance to the Ivy League tournament, where the winner earns the automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.

“I think the league looks great,” Henderson said. “It looks really good. Brown is playing really good basketball and defending well. Penn knocked off Villanova, so they look very solid. We have them twice early. We play at Yale in our next Ivy League game and they’re playing good basketball and have seniors. So does Penn.”

As a result of the league’s increased talent level, Princeton is happy that it has been able to face some significant challenges in the final weeks of December.

“I love the schedule,” said Henderson. “If you’re going to prepare yourself to be good, you have to play against the best. We’ve had an opportunity to see some good teams – Arizona State just knocked off (then-No. 1) Kansas. The level of preparation is heightened when you go into play against St. John’s, Arizona State, Duke, even St. Joseph’s (a 92-82 loss on December 5), who I think is a tournament team and terrific team. The schedule challenges you. It’s easy to hang your head, but I have confidence in this group and I think we can be very good.”

The Tigers will be looking to start their Ivy season off on the right foot at home on Saturday. It’s another chance to progress, which is just what Princeton has been looking for – and gotten, aside from the blowout loss to Duke.

“Other than that game, we are growing and there’s steady improvement,” said Henderson.

“As long as we’re getting one percent better every single game, over time that has a factor of what we want to be when we hit March. With the Ivy League tournament being what it is, as long as you’re continuing to grow as a group, you’re in the mix.”