As PU Men’s Hoops Returns to Court for 1st Time Since ’20, Tigers Showing Commitment to Getting Better on a Daily Basis
BACK ON COURT: Princeton University men’s basketball player Jaelin Llewellyn looks to make a move in a 2020 game. Senior guard and tri-captain Llewellyn will be expected to lead the Tigers as they return to action after their 2020-21 campaign was canceled due to ongoing COVID concerns. Princeton tips off its season by hosting Rutgers-Camden on November 9. The Tigers will then head to the Asheville Championship where they will face South Carolina on November 12 in the opening round. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)
By Bill Alden
When the Princeton University men’s basketball team last took the court on March 7, 2020 to wrap up regular season play, it was excited about its prospects in the upcoming Ivy League tournament.
But Princeton never got to compete in the Ivy tourney for a shot at making the NCAA tournament as the 2019-20 season was halted at that point due to the pandemic. Months later, its 2020-21 campaign was canceled due to ongoing COVID concerns.
So as his Tigers get ready to tip off its 2021-22 season by hosting Rutgers-Camden on November 9, Princeton head coach Mitch Henderson is excited just to get back in the court.
“It is so great, it is humbling; I am so appreciative of the opportunity,” said Henderson, who guided the Tigers to a 14-13 overall record and a 9-5 Ivy mark in 2019-20.
“It is a really fun group to work with. I really enjoy coming to work every day. That is a baseline, it is hard to put a price on that.”
The Princeton players have displayed an upbeat approach as they have gotten back to work.
“Everything we are asking them to do — leading each other, encouraging each other, setting examples for each other that are both positive and effort-related — that has all just been great,” said Henderson, noting that seniors Jaelin Llewellyn, Ethan Wright, and Drew Friberg will be serving as tri-captains this season.
“I am just trying to get them to be as confident in themselves as possible.”
With the Tigers not having seen game action since 2020, Henderson acknowledges it will take some time to develop that confidence.
“I would say that there is a natural rust factor not having suited up; you learn so much from the games,” said Henderson.
“I am always telling them that I am preparing you to win. You are doing that against each other. It is like everybody has a plan until you get punched in the face. You need to have a little adversity. That is what games provide.”
During the preseason, Henderson has seen his players get some valuable experience.
“We have had two scrimmages, they have both been really good for us,” said Henderson.
“We look at those as learning opportunities and we are very appreciative of that opportunity. I always try to tell the guys hey, that is why they call them closed door scrimmages. It is a chance for us to just learn about ourselves without everybody judging us before the lights go on. We could use more of those but the only way we are going to learn now is by suiting up and playing.”
When the lights go on, Henderson is expecting star guard Llewellyn (a team-high 15.3 points and 4.1 rebounds a game in 2019-20) to make a big impact.
“I just appreciate so much the way Jaelin came back this year; he arrived like a senior and has made a commitment to improving the little things in his game,” said Henderson.
“Finishing around the rim was an area of improvement for him both freshman and sophomore year and he really grew there. He has made that a key part of his game, the around the basket finishes. He has got the ball in his hands a ton so he is making decisions for us. The thing I appreciate the most is the energy that he is bringing to the team on a day-to-day basis and how he elevates everybody else around him. He has been really committed to being consistent.”
Henderson appreciates what versatile guard Wright (7.2 points, 3.8 rebounds) brings to the table as he showed flashes of brilliance as a sophomore.
“We are trying to get those flashes to be a bright, shining light; he wants to be great and it is a daily process,” said Henderson, adding that sophomore Matt Allocco and senior Max Johns (1.6 points, 1.1 rebounds) should also be in the mix in the backcourt.
“There is an awful lot there, he has always been willing to put in the work. He is one of the toughest guys on our team in terms of just giving effort on a day-to-day basis. I have just never seen anybody that plays that hard all of the time.”
Star forward Friberg (8.3 points, 3.6 rebounds) figures to provide production from the perimeter.
“I think he has a shot at being one of the best shooters in the country,” said Henderson of Friberg who drained a team-high 52 three-pointers in 2019-20.
“He has got a great feel for the game, he has the trust of the team. He is very consistent in his approach and mature in the way he handles himself on and off the court.”
Junior guard Ryan Langborg (4.4 points, 1.8 rebounds) also brings a good shooting touch.
“Ryan has really been great in his confidence and his commitment to getting better on a day-to-day basis,” said Henderson.
“His confidence on offense is contagious for those around him. He has got one of the quickest releases I have ever seen on a shot and it goes in regularly. I am really excited for him this season.”
In the paint, a pair of powerful forwards, 6’8, 217-pound junior forward Tosan Evbuomwan (3.9 points, 1.8 rebounds) and 6’9, 235-pound Keeshawn Kellman (3.4 points, 1.2 rebounds) could form an exciting one-two punch.
“We are just trying to work with Tosan possession after possession, he is a very unusual player for us and in college basketball,” said Henderson, noting that senior Elijah Barnes (1.4 points, 0.8 rebounds) and sophomore Zach Martini should see time in the frontcourt.
“I think he is poised to have a terrific year, he is a very difficult kid to guard and match up against. Keeshawn is another guy that is unusual. He is very strong, we hope that he will be a force in the paint. Like Richmond [Aririguzoh] before him, he is just constantly improving.”
Henderson believes that he has a strong freshman group that will continue to improve as the winter unfolds.
“We have a very promising freshman class, the thing that is a key factor for me is that they come with a spirit of improvement,” said Henderson, noting that one of the newcomers, 6’10, 240-pound Mason Hooks, has been establishing himself as an inside presence.
“They are willing to work on the things that they need to work on and not be too hard on themselves. The seniors and juniors are not afraid to compete with them and then put their arm around them afterwards. The freshmen are not afraid of competing. I think that is a good sign. We expect all of them to be contributors, if not this year, then soon. We feel very good about all of them.”
In Henderson’s view, a key to success for the squad will be how quickly it learns how to work together and play hard each minute it is on the court.
“I think they need to develop their own identity as a group,” said Henderson.
“It is coming together. We haven’t had a lot of adversity that is public. It is just letting it go and playing and being committed to each other in each possession and the toughness that goes into that. I would hope that they would find it on their own, with and for each other.”
Hosting Division III foe Rutgers-Camden in the opener should give the Tigers a good opportunity to start finding a rhythm.
“I love playing local schools, we have normally saved a game like that for later after exams,” said Henderson.
“Our schedule is much different now. You get a home contest as your opener, it really gives us much-needed experience. We are not taking anybody lightly at this point for how long we have been off.”
Princeton will then head south to compete in the Asheville Championship where it will face South Carolina on November 12 in the opening round of the event.
“That is a huge challenge, opening up with South Carolina there, they are an extremely physical team,” said Henderson.
“We will get an opportunity to jump right out on ESPN with that national TV game. I love that game for us. I am humbled that we get a chance to jump right back into things for ourselves and for the University. It feels very big picture for me and then once we start playing, it will be alright we have got to make a shot, we have got to get a rebound.”