From December through March, the take on this year’s Princeton team has been fairly consistent: These are not your father’s Tigers. They’re not a walk-it-up, slow-it-down team. They will run, when given the opportunity, and they can hold their own as rebounders, even against major-conference teams.
Princeton (25-6, 12-2 Ivy) has averaged 69.4 points per game – nine more than last year and 19 more than the Tigers of 2006-07, the season before head coach Sydney Johnson ’97 arrived. (Longtime Princeton fans will note that the Tigers hadn’t always averaged 50 points per game. Relatively high-scoring teams roamed the courts of Dillon and Jadwin gyms from the Bill Bradley ’65 years through the mid-1970s, and even the 1995-96 team that famously topped UCLA 43-41 averaged 60.9 points per game before the NCAA Tournament.)
Paradoxically, Johnson credits defense with driving his team’s faster pace. “We’ve made major, major strides defensively,” he said. “We can pressure people, we can turn people over, or we can just grind it out in the half-court defensively, and so that allows us to get out and go a little bit more.”
(Photos: Office of Athletic Communications)
On offense, Princeton’s big four – Kareem Maddox ’11, Ian Hummer ’13, Dan Mavraides ’11, and Douglas Davis ’12 – account for 75 percent of the scoring. Maddox and Hummer, the team’s top interior players, each average 13.9 points per game and were among the Ivy League leaders in field-goal percentage (56.5 and 55.7 percent, respectively). Mavraides is a dual threat to shoot 3-pointers or drive to the basket. Davis, the team’s best 3-point shooter, also has a deadly mid-range game, as Harvard learned in the final second of the Ivy playoff game.
The cast of Tiger role players has grown over the course of the season. Starting forward Patrick Saunders ’12 is a solid perimeter shooter and a valuable defender. Center Brendan Connolly ’13 had one of his best games in the Ivy playoff, scoring nine points and not missing a shot (3-for-3 from the field, 3-for-3 on free throws). Will Barrett ’13 also has made a significant impact late in the year, earning a spot in the starting lineup in the last two games, against Penn and Harvard. Mack Darrow ’13 is an adept passer, with 50 assists and just 22 turnovers. Freshmen T.J. Bray and Ben Hazel also have played meaningful minutes this season.
Kentucky (25-8, 10-6 SEC), the Southeastern Conference Tournament winner, will present challenges for Princeton on both ends of the court. Coach John Calipari’s Wildcats employ a dynamic “dribble drive motion” offense (Calipari once quipped that it’s like “Princeton on steroids”). The system puts relentless pressure on defenders in the lane and opens space for shooters on the perimeter. Kentucky averages 76.4 points per game (25th in Division I), thanks in part to exceptional 3-point shooting (39.7 percent, 14th in Division I).
The Wildcats also rank among the nation’s best defensive teams, holding opponents to 39.1 percent shooting from the field (ninth in Division I). They were particularly impressive last weekend in the SEC Tournament, where they held Alabama and Florida to 58 and 54 points, respectively, on consecutive days.
Like most Kentucky teams, the roster includes players who could be headed to the NBA after this season. Two freshmen, guard Brandon Knight and forward Terrence Jones, have been projected as top-15 draft picks.
“There’s a lot of talent there,” Johnson said. “Their point guard [Knight] is very good, Terrence Jones is a man among boys, an awesome talent. They’re picking up the pace, but they also run good stuff in the half-court, so I know that we’re going to have challenges.”