November 2, 2022

With an Emphasis on Paying Attention to Detail, PU Men’s Hoops Excited for Opening Test Against Hofstra

TO THE HOOP: Princeton University men’s basketball player Tosan Evbuomwan looks to get a shot off in the point during a game last season. Senior star Evbuomwan, the Ivy League Player of the Year last winter, is primed to produce a big final campaign for the Tigers. Princeton tips off its 2022-23 campaign by hosting Hofstra on November 7. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

By Bill Alden

For Mitch Henderson, paying attention to detail figures to be a key to success this winter for his Princeton University men’s basketball team.

“We have to be able to play with poise but also there is a focus on the littlest things that make a team go that are rarely obvious when you are playing,” said Princeton head coach Henderson, who guided the Tigers to a 23-7 record last winter as it won the Ivy League regular season title and made the NIT. “The main thing I want to see is can we take that step forward on doing the littlest things — a deflection, a difference in a half step defensively, getting your hands on a ball that maybe you should not have gotten. I think we will be able to make shots and we will be able to score around the rim.”

With Princeton hosting Hofstra on November 7 in its season opener, Henderson believes his squad has been taking steps forward.

“Preseason for us is a really short in one way because we lost a lot of pieces from a year ago so we have to piece together what works in practice,” said Henderson. “We are really itching to get going. I love working with the team, they have been responsive, focused. There is a lot of humility with the group. It is led by Tosan Evbuomwan, Ryan Langborg, and Matt Allocco. They have been around, they have seen it, and they know what to do.”

Princeton will be depending on the one-two punch of senior Langborg (10.7 points, 3.5 rebounds a game in 2021-22) and junior Allocco (4.1 points, 2.8 rebounds) to lead the way at guard.

“Starting with Matt and Ryan in the backcourt, they are two veterans who have played in really significant games,” said Henderson. “It is time for them to take over. Year to year, it is just time for the next group to take a big step.”

Henderson believes that sophomore guard Blake Peters (1.3 points, 0.9 rebounds) can make a big jump this season, coming off a summer which saw him help the U.S. open men’s hoops team win a gold medal in the Maccabiah Games.

“I expect him to make a major contribution to us on and off the floor,” said Henderson, noting that sophomore Darius Gakwasi (3.1 points, 1.3 rebounds) should also see time in the backcourt. “He is able to shoot the ball really well. He is doing more than that which is what we have asked him to do. He needs to keep working on the other parts of his game, the little things that contribute towards winning.”

Former Hun School standout Jack Scott and Xaivian Lee figure to spearhead a good group of freshman guards that also includes Deven Austin.

“The freshmen are all good, I expect all of them to help us,” said Henderson. “Jack has got a little bit of everything, he can do it all. He is an excellent passer. He gets it, he is an all-around player. Xaivian is very fast.”

In the frontcourt, Evbuomwan did it all for the Tigers last winter, getting named the Ivy Player of the Year. The 6’8, 219-pound forward from Newcastle, England averaged 16.0 points, 6.7 rebound and 5.1 assists a game.

“We went into the opener a year ago not knowing that we would play this way with him being what he is,” said Henderson of Evbuomwan, whose assist total of 142 in 2021-22 was the second-best single-season mark in program history. “That was really a development that happened over the course of the season. His perimeter game has really taken off. He is such a good passer.”

Henderson believes that powerful 6’9, 235-pound senior Keeshawn Kellman (5.0 points, 2.4 rebounds) could emerge as a force this winter for the Tigers.

“Keeshawn has taken a big jump, we really haven’t had him for two years,” said Henderson, noting that Kellman was plagued by injury last winter and only played eight games. “He is doing great, he is a physical presence around the basket. He is learning how to make his impact felt on possession after possession. He just needs time doing that and then doing it with Tosan. That will be the fun part of that this season for us, to see those two guys together.”

Two other returners, sophomore Mason Hooks (3.1 points,. 1.7 rebounds) and junior Zach Martini (2.2 points, 1.6 rebounds), should see time in the paint.

“Mason has been big, solid contributor for us; he really knows how to play the game,” said Henderson. “Zach is a physical presence. We expect them both to make really big contributions.”

The Tigers will be looking for a pair of freshman Caden Pierce and Vernon Collins along with sophomore Philip Byriel and senior Jacob O’Connell to also contribute in the frontcourt.

“Caden played guard on his high school team but he has the ability to switch,” said Henderson. “He is a big 6’6 physical, tough kid that has good discipline. We can play him in multiple different positions defensively which really helps us. Vernon, Philip and Jacob will also see minutes.”

In hosting Hofstra to tip off the season, Princeton is facing a tough test.

“I think it is a great opener for college basketball people,” said Henderson of Hofstra who went 21-11 last winter and defeated Princeton 81-77 in early December. “They are really well coached, Speedy Claxton is the head coach. It is a difficult matchup. They have this kid, Aaron Estrada, a lefty who can score in a lot of different kinds of ways. They are a difficult matchup, they are highly competitive.”

With Princeton hosting the Ivy postseason tournament at Jadwin Gym in March, the Tigers are determined to be in the title mix as the campaign unfolds.

“Last year was a fun year for the team; we got off to slow starts a lot but it really came together and it was a terrific, historic offensive season,” said Henderson, whose team set a program record last season when it averaged 79.8 points a game.

“I don’t expect that but I expect us to be better defensively than a year ago. It is a very different team. You go through the year as your seniors and leaders go. I have high expectations for that group. Like we do each year, it is here is what we have got and we are going to put everything on the table in terms of trying to get a championship out of it. As long as keep learning and growing, we have got a shot.”