How did Princeton get here?
Princeton started off the year as the favorite to win the Ivy League, and why not? The Tigers had a successful 2015-16 season, finishing just one game behind regular season champion Yale. They returned leading scorer Henry Caruso, and the talented duo of Spencer Weisz and Steven Cook. In addition, Amir Bell had built off a successful freshman campaign and emerged as a consistent contributor in his sophomore season. In the middle, center Hans Brase was returning after being sidelined the previous season with a knee injury.
Of course, everything is easier said than done.
The first month of the season was rough for the Tigers. They began the season with back-to-back losses at BYU and Lehigh, and went 4-6 over their first ten games. Adversity continued to mount for Princeton. Bell’s productivity was down, and he had been held scoreless in two of the first 10 games.
Bad news continued to roll in. On Dec. 11, the Tigers announced that Brase would be sidelined for the remainder of the season due to a knee injury. Only three days later, it was announced that Caruso would miss the season, after sustaining a toe injury.
Following the Caruso’s injury announcement, Princeton lost two more games to Saint Joseph’s and Monmouth. Out of this adversity emerged a team battle-tested and resolute in their will to win.
“Expectations were high,” head coach Mitch Henderson said after the Tigers defeated Yale to win the Ivy League Tournament. “That’s where we put them. We were a work in progress and we probably didn’t think we were. We needed to get punched in the face a little more. And we did, we took a couple more hits. But really, it was Myles’ [Stephens] and Devin’s [Cannaday] emergence in to the lineup. Things became very clear. We had a seven-man rotation, and the ability to play five guards.”
Prior to Caruso’s injury, Stephens was playing 19 minutes per game. He finished the season averaging 27 minutes per game, and flourished. Stephens scored a career-high 23 points in Princeton’s championship win against Yale. As a team, Princeton finished the regular season averaging 72.1 points per game, to the tune of 45 percent shooting from the floor.
Also after the Yale game, Henderson repeatedly emphasized that Princeton was a defense-focused team this season. The Tigers held opponents to 61.5 points per game, which is good for the 10th-best mark in the country, and at .96 points per possession, the Tigers’ defense slips just inside the KenPom top 50. Princeton also forces turnovers on 20 percent of its opposition’s possessions.
It’s fair to say that this will be the biggest challenge of the Tigers’ season. But it’s March. The competition is supposed to be higher, and for a Princeton team that has been “punched in the face,” several times, as its coach put it, and still found a way to win 19 straight games, anything is possible.
What about Notre Dame?
Notre Dame is a team experienced in postseason play, having reached the Elite Eight the past two seasons. Notre Dame finished second in the ACC tournament, losing to Duke in the tital game. The Irish’s roster features a big four who all average double figures scoring: Bonzie Colson (17.5), V.J. Beachem (15), Matt Farrell (14.2), and Steve Vasturia (13.3). They combined to average 59 points per game in the ACC tournament, and the Notre Dame offense is good for 25th in the country per KenPom. Defensively, Notre Dame was a mixed bag in the ACC. The Irish allowed 69 points per game (fifth in the ACC), and guard the three at .326 percent (eighth).
Did you know?
With only four exceptions in the past 31 years, a 12 seed has beaten a 5 seed each year in the NCAA Tournament. In just the past five years, 12 and 5 seeds have won at equal rates. Teams from the Ivy League have won their first-round games (Yale over Baylor in 2016 and Harvard over Cincinnati in 2014) in two of the past three years.
A look back
Princeton 76, Notre Dame 62.
These two teams last met in 1977, when Princeton pulled off a major upset against the second-ranked Irish.