Friday, February 17, 2012

Trenton Times Previews Cornell at Princeton

PRINCETON — As the Princeton University men’s basketball team begins the second half of its Ivy League schedule this weekend, the goal has realistically shifted from defending its title to simply improving.

Inconsistency has plagued this group, which takes a 13-10 record against Columbia tonight at Jadwin Gym, with a 4-3 record in the league. Tomorrow night it’s Cornell.

The Tigers are coming off their best performance of the season, a 70-62 victory over Harvard, at the time ranked in the Associated Press poll and unbeaten in league play.

There have been other nice wins, such as the triple-overtime result at Florida State, the comeback at Rutgers, the buzzer-beater at Rider. But the opposite results occurred in games against North Carolina State (by two points), at home to Elon (one point), at Drexel (four points), and at Cornell last month by eight points.

For rookie head coach Mitch Henderson, the results aren’t really shocking — for a few reasons.

The schedule dumped the Tigers on the road for 16 of their first 21 games, including their first five in the Ivy. They have played all season without a true point guard. And, until after semester break they had only two scoring threats: do-it-all junior Ian Hummer and shooting guard Doug Davis, a senior.

“I said at the beginning of the year I would like to see more consistency, so I’m not surprised,” Henderson said the other day, sitting on the bottom row of bleachers on the side court.

“The guys were pleased with themselves this week, but like I’ve expected all year long, I think they understand that they let a couple get away. We’ve talked about games coming down to a couple of plays, but I’m not sure we’ve talked about it enough.

“The Harvard game was a little bit more how they see themselves, but really, we’re still a work in progress. Short memories are important, and this is the weekend we have to build on it and show even more progress.”

Five players scored in double figures against Harvard. All underclassmen: Hummer had 20 points, nine rebounds, six assists and one turnover. Sophomore guard T.J. Bray scored 12 points and had four assists, 6-foot-11 junior Brendan Connolly had 11 points and six boards, 6-9 junior Matt Darrow had 10 and 5, and 6-8 freshman Denton Koon had 10 points in 18 minutes.

“The guys that make us a good team are starting to play better,’’ Henderson said.
Hummer, who leads the team in scoring (16.7) and rebounding (7.7), shot 0-for-11 just one night before against Dartmouth.

“He’s the focus of every team’s scout, and he’s sort of had a hard time adjusting to that,” Henderson said about Hummer, a 1,000-point scorer already. “He’s an emotional player, he gets frustrated, but you see moments when he steps back and helps his teammates, like the six assists Saturday.”

The new coach has had his moments as well.

“I realized I was going to make some mistakes, and from October to now I’ve learned to listen to the signs a little more. When we started 1-5, I made adjustments. They were small, but we opened things a little more on the offensive end. Then we won nine of our next 11.

“I’ve learned it’s a long race, and I kind of had this idea in my head of playing our best basketball in February. But we weren’t playing our best basketball on January 15th, and it’s cost us.

“One thing I’ll never do ever again is that road schedule. That was one of the worst things of all time. That was a very difficult stretch. I underestimated even how much being in your own bed makes a difference; even if it’s Rider, Rutgers or Penn. Most of the schedule was my fault. And the first five in the league were unforeseen.”

The future seems bright. Henderson said they have a commitment from a point guard, a kid he said, “We’d like to give the ball to. It’s a priority. We need someone to pass first and a speed guy. That would make a gigantic difference on a team like this.”

Speaking of gigantic, a 7-2 player is also on the way. Though he has only played basketball four years, Henderson said he can catch the ball and run. Three commits are set, and he’s hoping for a fourth.

There are other returnees, of course. Sophomore Chris Clement, junior Jimmy Sherburne and freshman Clay Wilson, all guards, could emerge next season.

Henderson feels that Bray is unappreciated for skills he brings to the point position, saying, “He doesn’t have all the tools people recognize historically as being a point guard, but his numbers are as good as any guard that’s played here in terms of assist and turnover ratio.

“I look at him as a complete guard, with his ability to make guys around him better.”

Henderson’s college coach can also make him better. Hall of Famer Pete Carril is a frequent visitor in the gym in which he coached for 29 years. He is anything but a distraction, Henderson said.

“It’s, I think, a gift,” he said, “and we don’t take it lightly around here. He’s there when we need him, especially me. Sometimes you need a different way to look at things. I feel very fortunate and I think the staff does, too.”

He is also fortunate to have a wife who understands him and the game.

Employed in New York City as an executive producer for television commercials, she is a basketball fan who attends all the games.

They were married last August.

Asked if she offers any advice or criticism, Henderson smiled. “She wants us to get more rebounds,” he said. “So do I.”

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