November 15, 2023

With Battle-Tested Veterans Displaying Toughness, Tiger Men’s Basketball Produces Superb 2-0 Start

STRONG START: Princeton University men’s basketball player Caden Pierce dribbles upcourt in a recent practice session. Last Friday, sophomore forward Pierce scored a career-high 26 points and had 15 rebounds to help Princeton defeat Hofstra 74-67. He was later named the Ivy League Player of the Week. The Tigers, now 2-0, play at Duquesne on November 15 and at Monmouth on November 18. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

By Bill Alden

While the Princeton University men’s basketball program lost some key players to graduation from the squad that made a run to the NCAA Sweet 16 last March, the 2023-24 team appears to retained one of the chief qualities that led to that success.

Opening the season on November 6 by topping Rutgers 68-61 in the Jersey Jam at the CURE Insurance Arena in Trenton, the Tigers displayed the resilience that made them so hard to beat last season down the stretch last winter.

“I thought we played with a real understanding of what it was going to take to win, they made a couple of runs but we were able to withstand them,” said Princeton head coach Mitch Henderson. “It was a terrific environment. We were able play with some poise down the stretch. We have got a group that you see is tough.”

In Henderson’s view, that toughness stems from his battle-tested veterans.

“It is simply a testament to the older guys in the group. There is very little room in our practices for anything other than what you saw in the game,” said Henderson. “It starts with [Matt] Allocco and [Zach] Martini, but now [Caden] Pierce, [Blake] Peters, and [Xaivian] Lee are all understanding that there is a standard to which we play. It is a carryover from where we were last season. That is to me what we have always seen with Princeton basketball.”

In the win over Rutgers, Allocco and Lee played very well. Senior guard and co-captain Allocco tallied 21 points with nine rebounds while sophomore guard Lee contributed 16 points and five assists.

“He is everything on the floor that you would want out of a senior in college basketball,” said Henderson of Allocco. “Xaivian is learning to take the right kinds of steps where needed. He had a great summer. Xaivian is poised to have a great year in some ways. In other ways he has shown us that he wants to be coached and he wants to improve.”

Playing at Hofstra last Friday, the Tigers showed improvement as they posted a 74-67 win over the Pride.

“It is a game that has bitten us in the last few years — they do a great job; they are going to be good in a very difficult conference,” said Henderson. “We see a lot of the CAA (Coastal Athletic Association) teams this year and we know that they are tough. We turned the ball over a lot in the first half but took care of the ball in the second half, just like against Rutgers. I think we had two, maybe three turnovers in the second half. What you like to see is toughness on the road up front and the ability to understand what it is going to take to win. There is a maturity there.”

Sophomore forward Pierce is maturing into a star, tallying a career-high 26 points along with 15 rebounds in the win over the Pride. He was later named the Ivy League Player of the Week.

“I have never seen anybody do what he is doing, and yet that is normal now around here,” said Henderson of Pierce who was later named the Ivy League Player of the Week. “I see improvement game-to-game and that is all we have asked. He is a great teammate; he has got such a welcoming spirit but he plays like he is mad at the ball. It is a joy to watch.”

The Tigers also got a good game against Hofstra from junior guard Peters, who tallied 15 points with two rebounds and one assist.

“Blake is playing with such confidence; he is very clear-headed person and he thrives knowing where he stands,” said Henderson. “He knows the way we feel about the way he is playing, he is playing within himself but also with lots of confidence. It is dangerous because every guy has a little bit of a different skill set but starting with Mush (Allocco), the objective is quite clear with this group. It is all about whatever it takes to win.”

Playing at Duquesne (3-0) on November 15 and at Monmouth (1-1) on November 18, Princeton will need to play well to come away with wins in those contests.

“Duquesne is another quality, high level opponent,” said Henderson, whose team will wrap up the road swing with a game at Old Dominion on November 22. “They are very well coached, they have been turning people over. They just beat College of Charleston by 18, which is a really great win. We are going to their place and it will be tough. Monmouth has improved, I love playing there. I love King (head coach King Rice) and he has got his son on the team now. We have three more road games in a row against very difficult opponents.”