After Harvard’s basketball program was battered by a school-wide cheating scandal at the beginning of the academic year, the Princeton Tigers (8-7, 1-0 Ivy) willingly stepped in as the Ivy League media’s preseason favorite in the conference. In a two-game road trip this weekend, the Red (9-10, 1-1) will try to take down the top-ranked Tigers at Jadwin Gymnasium before heading to Philadelphia, Pa., on Saturday for a bout with the struggling Penn Quakers (3-15, 0-1).
Coming off its first conference victory in a back-and-forth battle on the road against Columbia last weekend, the Red hopes to continue its success away from the familiar floorboards of Newman Arena.
“Anytime you win on the road you get confidence,” senior guard Johnathan Gray said. “Everyone has to be mentally prepared to try to tough out another couple wins. We have to have a swagger about us knowing we can win on the road.”
The Tigers, however, have been a recurring roadblock for the Red on the road. The squad has not beaten Princeton at Jadwin since its Sweet Sixteen run in 2009.
According to senior forward Eitan Chemerinski, Princeton’s length in the paint will likely pose the biggest problem for the Red.
“They’re a big team, they’re disciplined and I think that’s one of their big advantages,” he said. “If we speed them up and keep up the defensive intensity we brought at Columbia, that’s the best way to take away their offensive threats.”
The Tigers’ most dangerous offensive threat comes from forward Ian Hummer, who has already earned four Ivy League Player of the Week awards this season and has scored double figures in 13 of his 15 starts. The 6-7 senior is second in the conference in scoring with 15.5 points per game and fourth in rebounding with 6.5 boards per game. With Hummer’s formidable presence on the low block, the Red understands it needs to make a conscious effort to keep the ball out of the paint.
“In general, it’s going to be important to limit the post touches and to keep the ball out of the post,” Chemerinski said. “We can do that by denying the ball and not letting entry passes into the post and staying in front of [Hummer], making it difficult for him to catch [the ball].”
Hummer’s threat also comes from his ability to create his own shot, an uncharacteristic but particularly impressive talent from a post-player, Gray said.
“We have to have all five guys understand where he is on the court,” Gray said. “Princeton wants to go to him, he’s the one guy who can break the offense and look to score. He can make plays any time, and we need to make sure we’re there to help when he tries to attack.”
The infamous Princeton offense that has been shaped and fit into countless college basketball programs across the country consists of a very specific mentality. The Tigers’ game plan is relaxed and looks to move into an offensive set that features constant motion with back-door and off-ball screens which can free shooters and post players.
“They’re going to try to slow the game down. They have a particular set offense that they’ll use to get us out of our rhythm,” Gray said. “They’ll try to throw the ball in the post a lot and keep it in the 50-60 point range. Whoever dictates the tempo will win this game.”
The Red, however, thrives on attacking the basket in transition, as demonstrated in its 66-63 victory over Columbia. The Red went to the free-throw line 29 times in the win, with 12 of those opportunities coming from sophomore guard Galal Cancer.
“We’re always trying to play aggressive on offense,” Chemerinski said. “When we’re driving, trying to get to the lane, that’s often when we’re at our best so hopefully we can keep that up.”
Though the Red has relied heavily on its outside shooting this year and in the past, the squad only shot 25 percent from beyond the arc against Columbia and was much more successful when the ball went inside.
“We’re a better team when we’re attacking the basket,” Gray said. “We’re a good shooting team, but we have to make sure that we start inside and work out.”
After matching up against the Tigers on Friday, the Red will head to Penn’s home court on only half a day of rest. The Quakers are coming off a 12-point loss to Princeton in its last Ivy game.
Penn was a contender for the Ivy title last season, losing a disappointing tie breaker game to Harvard to decide the conference champion. However, the Quakers lost a good portion of its scoring in Zack Rosen and Tyler Bernadini, who combined to score over 30 points per game in their senior campaign.
“Playing at Polestra is always tough,” Gray said. “[Penn] lost two big parts of their offense, but we understand that other guys will step up. [Miles] Cartwright will be a lot more aggressive in the offense, and they have shooters and guys who know how to play.”
Cartwright — the lone starter returning from last years’ team — is averaging 13.5 points and 3.4 rebounds for game. Junior forward Fran Dougherty is averaging just under nine boards per game in only 10 games.
Though the Quakers have struggled to find their offense so far this year, Gray said his team understands that the Ivy League is no place for underestimations — especially when a team is playing on its home court.
“Hey, it’s a road game; we have to treat it like any other team in this league,” he said. “We know each other inside and out, so we’re prepared. We have to make sure we take care of Princeton first.”