Tigers turn to youth in rare rebuilding season
Colgate smoked Princeton by 23 last week in upstate New York.
Lafayette came in and took it to the Tigers by double figures the previous week.
Drexel handled them easily in the NIT Season Tip-Off opening round.
Princeton lost again at home Tuesday night, this time to Temple by 13, to drop to 1-4 overall. The Tigers have now lost four straight games at Jadwin Gym (counting last season's finale) for the first time ever.
So what, you say?
"There's no one on that team that scares you right now," said one rival coach. "I'm not sure they know who they are just yet."
Opponents without fear? And Princeton, which has an offense named after it, lacking a basketball identity? When's the last time you heard that?
It would appear that there should be gloom and doom in central New Jersey, because Princeton doesn't produce scholars just in academia. But second-year coach Joe Scott is convinced he will -- and, in some ways, already has -- figured this out.
That wasn't the case last year, even after Scott wasn't shy early about pumping his team. He had every reason to believe that the magic he created at Air Force could be duplicated at Princeton, his alma mater.
This, after all, is Princeton, the school that beat defending national champ UCLA in the first round of the 1996 NCAA Tournament. The same school that nearly took out No. 1 Georgetown in a No. 1 seed vs. No. 16 seed matchup in Providence in 1989. The same Princeton where Scott was the top assistant under Bill Carmody when the team went 27-2 in 1998 and was ranked as high as No. 7 in the nation.
This is Princeton, the team that almost every coach in America hates to play because of its style and commitment to valuing every possession. This could be the most recognizable basketball school outside of the traditional big boys.
Scott wasn't alone in his enthusiasm. Outgoing coach John Thompson III, who left to take over the program his father built at Georgetown, said after he arrived in D.C. last year that Princeton was going to be very good. We're talking top-25 good, with seniors Will Venable and Judson Wallace.
Instead, the Tigers wheezed to a 15-13 record. More shocking was Princeton's 6-8, sixth-place finish in the Ivy, marking the first time ever the Tigers had finished under .500 in the league.
It's safe to say last season wasn't what Princeton expected when Scott was hired, but he seems to have learned his lessons.
"I shouldn't have opened my mouth last year," said Scott. "I had no idea who our players were. I never should have opened my mouth. All I should have been saying is that we would play hard and build it our way. We made the mistake, looking back, talking about this team when we didn't work with them until September. How dumb was I talking about our team when I didn't know them?"
That history is why the Tigers' 1-4 start this season maybe seems worse than it is. Still, with each loss, things gets more and more magnified in what is now apparently a rebuilding season.
"It's because it's Princeton," Scott said of why the sluggish start is under a hotter spotlight. "I still feel 100 percent better than a year ago. I have a much better understanding of who we have, what we want. This is no different than what we did at Air Force. The only difference is that you're calling and asking about it."
After losing Wallace, Venable and solid big man Mike Stephens to graduation, the Tigers are now very young, with attrition having claimed many of the team's upperclassmen. Princeton only has one senior on the roster -- guard Scott Greenman -- and he was limited Tuesday after falling on his back over the weekend and then tweaking it while getting out of his car prior to the game.
Aside from the inexperience, there are some problems. As rival coaches told ESPN.com, the Tigers lack a go-to scorer and a traditional five-man to get the offense going at the top of the key. Scott also essentially cut several players earlier this season and had another leave the program this week. It's also fair to note that Scott inherited the core of a team that went to the NCAA Tournament in 2004 and now has lost 12 of its last 19 games -- and the intimidation factor that used to be associated with playing the Tigers.
Scott doesn't disagree with any of that, but he says he is committed to playing his younger players. That's why he's going with seldom-used junior Patrick Ekeruo as his primary five-man and why he will lean heavily on freshmen guards Geoff Kestler and Alex Okafor as well as freshman forward Michael Strittmatter. Sophomore forward Harrison Schaen, who missed a year after dropping out of school a year ago, will still have to find his role.
"The fear factor is a mentality that has to come from your players, not from someone else's players," Scott said. "If your players have that, it can make the other team feel that way. The teams that play us are always ready to play us and get up for us. We're struggling a bit but the whole thing is getting us ready for the league. We're going to go with the younger guys, play the freshmen and it might mean we suffer at times ... [but] I have a better idea of who are players are and we'll make progress. I just have to deal with the [outside] perceptions."
The Tigers stand to grow up a lot in the next few weeks, as they face Wyoming, Wake Forest, Stanford (in Oakland in the Pete Newell Challenge), Rutgers, Rice and Davidson.
One rival coach said Princeton will still be very competitive in the Ivy and could beat anybody in the league. That might be true. Scott said he has six weeks to figure this team out before the Ivy, which for this league is all that matters, since no Ivy team is getting an at-large berth.
Penn remains the favorite, with Cornell, Harvard and Yale as possible contenders. And, who knows, maybe Princeton, if the younger players grasp Scott's system and don't get too discouraged by losing a ton of nonconference games.
For now, the Princeton family will need to handle the losses. The Tigers are rebuilding, much in the same way other franchise programs (like Kansas) are this season. Digest the scores and deal with the fact that this might be the first sub-.500 team in 19 seasons and only the eighth time in the last 20 that the Tigers won't be in a postseason event.
That's the reality. Manage it for this season and hope Scott won't let the Tigers be stepped on for much longer.
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.
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