LOUISVILLE, Ky. — So where to start with these Princeton Tigers? The star who grew up playing rugby? The hot-shooting reserve who was once nominated for an ESPY as a high school freshman? The coach who might have been an outfielder in the New York Yankees organization?
Here they came for practice Thursday, dressed in orange and black, just like the basketballs they were bouncing. The No. 1 ranked team was on the floor.
No. 1? Certainly, if you mean the ranking of national universities of the U.S. News and World Report. No matter who’s doing the academic ratings, Princeton is always at or near the top, along with fellow Ivy Leaguers Harvard and Yale. One difference, though. Harvard and Yale have been to 11 NCAA tournaments between them. This is Princeton’s 26th, a ride which has been extended to the Sweet 16 here this weekend.
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About this South Regional field, which includes Princeton’s Friday opponent Creighton, Alabama and San Diego State. Those three have never been to a Final Four.
But Princeton has.
That was back during the Lyndon Johnson administration in 1965, led by Bill Bradley, later both a New York Knick and a New Jersey U.S. Senator.
As the unquestioned owner of the Cinderella tag in the 2023 NCAA tournament, the Tigers might need some introduction. If they’re going to wreck your bracket, you should get to know them, because who can guess where this ends? As guard Blake Peters now-famously shouted into the national TV microphone last weekend after scoring 17 points in 15 minutes against Missouri, “ÁNYTHING IS POSSIBLE!”
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Five days later, sitting in the locker room after practice, Peters said he’s been hearing from a lot of people about that sound bite. “It was just real spontaneous. It’s kind of a theme throughout my life, a lot of these guys as well,” he said. “At this point we’re of the mindset we can do anything.”
Every NCAA tournament needs a Princeton. “It seems like,” Peters said, “the world’s on our side.”
At last Princeton is. Coach Mitch Henderson mentioned the big sendoff the campus gave his team Wednesday. Even the organic chemistry professor from the lab next door to the gym was there.
“It’s a life-changing moment for our group. Three weeks ago we were fighting for our lives to make the Ivy League tournament,” Henderson said. “We followed Saint Peter’s run last year very closely. I just think that each team has a special life to live in the tournament. It’s amazing and hard to put into words what it feels like on this end.”
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- The Tigers got here by pounding Missouri 78-63, the largest margin of victory ever for a No. 15 seed. That was also the Ivy League’s first NCAA tournament win over an SEC team since 1942.
- Princeton’s top player is 6-8 senior forward Tosan Evbuomwan, who’s from Newcastle upon Tyne, England, a former ancient Roman settlement that got bombed a lot in World War II. He didn’t become serious about basketball until his mid-teens, since soccer and rugby were his things. Once he got going, his basketball coach in Newcastle sent off emails to several colleges in the U.S., suggesting they give the lad a look. Princeton answered in a hurry.
This March Madness business never made his radar screen when he was younger. He was saying Thursday that he’s never even made out a bracket. “I definitely missed out on a lot as a kid, I think.”
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- Forward Caden Pierce was Ivy League rookie of the year, leading the team in rebounding. His father Greg played football for Northwestern. His mother Stephanie played volleyball for Northwestern. His brother Justin played basketball for Roy Williams at North Carolina. His other brother Alec is a receiver for the Indianapolis Colts. What must family pickup games have been like?
“Unbelievable,” Caden said. “Two-on-two games in our front yard, I’d definitely come into the house with scrapes every single time I went out there with my brothers. We’d mix up the teams, I was always the worst.”
- Princeton is only the second Ivy League team in 44 years to play in the Sweet 16. The other was Cornell in 2010.
- The Tigers have four NCAA tournament victories in the past 39 years. Mitch Henderson played guard for two for them — UCLA in 1996 and UNLV in 1998 — and coached the other two, last weekend.
Henderson was the first athlete to earn 12 letters at Culver Military Academy in Indiana, George Streinbrenner’s old school. He played football, basketball and baseball. The New York Yankees selected him as an outfielder in the 29th round of the 1994 draft, one round behind current Dodgers manager Dave Roberts. Henderson decided to play basketball at Princeton instead.
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- Princeton is not a cuddly underdog. The Tigers pound the boards like bullies. Their 29.1 defensive rebounds a game are fourth in the nation, their 6.6 rebounding margin 11th.
- The Tigers are only two years removed from a winless season. But then, nobody in the Ivy League won a game back in 2020-21 as the conference shut down the entire season because of the pandemic, the only Division I conference to do so. “It was hard, watching essentially every other team in the country play,” junior guard Matt Allocco said.
“I think we’re here because of it. You grow up,” said Henderson, who resorted to all manners of team bonding that lost season. “Covid has affected everybody in its own way, but for student-athletes there’s a maturity that developed. Maybe we lost some fear of failure ... I mean, you had a season taken away at a young age.
“I don’t think we’ll know until years from now how much we’ll point to Covid and say that’s what this run was about.”
- There’s a reason Princeton has the reputation of being a tough out in the NCAA tournament, and not just because of its victories. The Tigers have had 10 March losses against the big guys by four points or under, or in overtime. The most recent was 60-58 to Notre Dame in 2017, Among the others were 59-57 to Kentucky in 2011, 64-60 to Arkansas in 1990 and 54-53 to Rutgers in 1976. All three of those teams ended up in the Final Four.
The most famous near-miss of all was 1989, when No. 16 seed Princeton took No. 1 Georgetown to the brink before losing 50-49. As that game went on, televisions around the nation started clicking in for the final minutes. The Tigers very nearly beat UMBC and Fairleigh Dickinson into the history books.
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- Much of what Princeton basketball is comes from the work of legendary coach Pete Carril. His offense of back cuts and bounce passes — the very play that shocked defending national champion UCLA in 1996 — became nationally renowned, and sometimes copied. Carril died last August at 92. That explains the bow-tie patches the Tigers wear on their uniforms.
- True, the unquestioned football giant among the four schools here is Alabama. But it was Princeton who played the first colIege football game, against Rutgers in 1869. And Princeton had a Heisman winner — halfback Dick Kazmaier in 1951 — 58 years before the Tide had its first.
- Quick question. Just where is Creighton?
Most of the Tigers knew Omaha, Nebraska, but not all of them. You don’t hear much about Omaha in Newcastle upon Tyne. “I had no idea,” Evbuomwan said. “I usually ask (teammates) Zach Martini and Jacob O’Connell those type of questions in terms of U.S. geography.”
- The first individual listed in the NCAA’s Final Four record book is a Princeton player. Bill Bradley’s 58 points against Wichita State in the 1965 third place game remain the most any player ever put up in a Final Four. The Tigers won 118-82, a day after losing to Michigan 93-76 in the semis. Bradley had 29 points in that one. He was named Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four without ever getting to the championship game.
- Guard Ryan Langborg scored 22 points in the Missouri victory and hit the go-ahead basket against Arizona. He’s Princeton’s second-leading scorer. Odd, then, that he was not named to the all-Ivy League first team or second team or even honorable mention. “If you want to argue, I’ll argue with anybody in here,” Henderson told the media last weekend about the slight.
- Peters came off the bench to help bury Missouri with five 3-pointers. You don’t see this on every NCAA tournament resume: He speaks fluent Chinse and plays Spanish classical guitar. As a high school freshman he ended up at the ESPY Awards with a 80-foot last-second game-winning heave nominated for best play of the year. He was on the same list with LeBron James.
“That brought a lot of people in my area a lot of joy,” he said of the moment, “But that was a result of luck. Much more has happened since then I take lot of pride from.”
Being with this week with Princeton, for example.
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- The tournament goes on, but so does the academic term at Princeton. Take the senior thesis. It’s a big deal, and it’s getting to be crunch time for some Tiger veterans.
They’re basketball players, and it shows. Langborg’s thesis theme is on the effect of traveling across multiple time zones on winning percentage in the NBA. Evbuomwan’s is how diversity among NBA executive management affects a team’s performance. Forward Keeshawn Kellman’s is how the performance of a professional sports team can impact community social behavior. “It’s been a lot, trying to balance this along with the tournament,” Kellman said. “But we’re going to get it done.”
The underclassmen are feeling it, too. Pierce and fellow freshman Xaivian Lee were up late Wednesday night. “We were kind of joking about it, we’re sure we’re the only team in this tournament working on math homework at 11 o‘clock,” he said. “My math was due at 11:59 last night and I was finishing it at 11:58.”
Another NCAA tournament buzzer-beater.