Familiar trends in Princeton men’s basketball’s sluggish start

By now, fans of the men’s basketball team should know not to worry about slow starts. Last year, Princeton won only one of its first six games — losing to undistinguished foes such as Elon and Morehead State — before going on to post 20 wins. And two years ago, the preseason Ivy favorites started the season 2-3 with a couple of puzzling losses before turning it around to reach the NCAA tournament.
 
So it’s hardly surprising that this year’s Tigers, in what has practically become a rite of passage, have struggled out of the gate. In fact, the start of this season is almost a perfect match for 2010-11: After being picked to win the Ivy League, Princeton won a close opener against a strong team (then Rutgers, now Buffalo) but dropped three of its next four, including a back-breaking comeback (then 20 points vs. James Madison, now 18 points vs. Northeastern) and a blowout loss at a top-10 school (then Duke, now Syracuse).
 
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Ian Hummer ’13 (Photo: Courtesy Office of Athletic Communications)
And these Tigers clearly have the potential to pull it together by the time conference play rolls around, just like their predecessors did. With the league’s best player, forward Ian Hummer ’13, leading a tall and experienced roster, few would be surprised if Princeton fulfilled its preseason expectations and became the last Ivy team standing in March.
 
“[We need to] not get discouraged,” head coach Mitch Henderson ’98 said after losing at Syracuse on Wednesday. “I think we can be pretty good … but we have to bounce back from where we are.”
 
Princeton has shown flashes of that potential several times already this season. The Tigers sped out to a 7-0 lead at Buffalo, a 21-10 lead against Northeastern, and a 12-3 lead against Rutgers in their first three games. But each time, Princeton followed with frustrating stretches to let its opponent back in the game (often with Hummer on the bench — the Tigers have been outscored by 25 points in 39 Hummer-less minutes).
 
At the Carrier Dome on Wednesday, the Tigers instead had their exasperating moments early on. Princeton played the No. 6 Orange even over the middle 20 minutes of the game, but only after starting in a 20-8 hole. “We came out a little flat … I thought we played well at times, but we need to put together a full 40 minutes, and we haven’t done that yet,” Hummer said Wednesday night.
 

Rebounding and turnovers have been the major weak spots for Princeton, and both were on display against the Orange. Syracuse collected 16 offensive rebounds on 32 missed shots — including five in a four-possession stretch to start the game — while the Tigers gave the ball away 24 times. Thanks to the rebounding and turnover advantages, the Orange attempted 19 more shots than Princeton.
 
The Tigers slayed two of their three primary demons on Saturday en route to a 72-53 win at Lafayette. After taking a double-digit lead early on, they never let the hosts back into the game, and they outrebounded the Leopards by a wide margin. But the Tigers committed 17 turnovers, far too many against an inferior opponent. Without Doug Davis ’12 (now playing in Germany) and Jimmy Sherburne ’14 (sitting out the season with a shoulder injury), Princeton’s backcourt is thin, forcing T.J. Bray ’14 to log heavy minutes at point guard.
 
Still, there are plenty of reasons for Princeton fans to stay optimistic. After missing most of last season with a foot injury, forward Will Barrett ’14 is healthy and playing at a very high level; for the season, Princeton has outscored its opponents by 22 points with Barrett on the floor, the best mark on the team. He and Clay Wilson ’15 have provided some much-needed outside shooting, combining for five three-pointers a game at a 47 percent rate.
 
And, of course, the Tigers have Hummer, who ranks second in the Ivy League with 17 points per game and, perhaps more impressively, leads the conference with 5.6 assists per game. Though he committed eight turnovers, Hummer racked up five assists and four steals at Syracuse, looking completely in his element against a physical Big East squad. “Any player’s going to tell you they want to play against the highest level,” Hummer said. “It’s good to play big-time teams.”
 
Quick takes
 
WOMEN’S BASKETBALL led No. 19 UCLA for 22 minutes on the road Sunday, but the Bruins held Princeton to 20 points after halftime to pull away for a 65-52 win. The Tigers have gone through some growing pains this year, but Sunday’s first half shows their potential; once again, they are especially potent on the glass, having grabbed at least 16 offensive rebounds in every game.
 
WOMEN’S ICE HOCKEY split its home series with No. 8 Ohio State, losing 4-2 after taking a two-goal lead into Friday’s third period but beating the Buckeyes 2-1 on Saturday. The Tigers have played five games already this season against top-10 opponents; some have been competitive (last weekend’s games and an overtime loss to No. 3 Clarkson), and others not so much (a 9-1 loss to No. 9 Harvard).
 
Andrew Ammon ’14 scored four goals in a 4-3 victory over Sacred Heart for MEN’S HOCKEY, which followed that with a 3-1 loss to UMass-Lowell on Saturday. Mike Condon ’13 and Sean Bonar ’14 have fought for time in net, combining to post the ECAC’s lowest save percentage at .891.
 
Plagued by injuries, WRESTLING lost its first three head-to-head matches of the season by wide margins at the Northeast Duals. Princeton 174-pounder Ryan Callahan ’14 posted two of the Tigers’ five individual wins over the weekend.
 

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Kevin Whitaker ’13 is an economics major and Daily Princetonian sports editor.

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