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Men hope depth, fundamentals will lead to Ivy title

Senior guard T.J. Bray shot .450 from the field last season.

Senior guard T.J. Bray shot .450 from the field last season.

Following a heartbreaking end to its 2012-13 season, the men’s basketball team will soon begin a new quest for the Ivy League title that eluded it by one game last spring. Nursing the loss of Ian Hummer ’13, the second-most prolific scorer in school history, the squad has reloaded by adding six freshmen and three veterans returning from time off.

Senior guard Jimmy Sherburne, junior guard Ben Hazel and junior forward Dan Edwards will all be stepping onto the court for the first time since early 2012, following the one-year hiatus each took for separate reasons. In his Media Day teleconference, head coach Mitch Henderson ’98 made it clear that Sherburne and Hazel will be thrust immediately back into the spotlight, resuming their roles as the team’s primary ball-handlers along with senior guard and captain T.J. Bray.

Sherburne and Hazel will have plenty of backup along the perimeter, coming in the form of six freshman guard/forwards. In the backcourt, junior guard Clay Wilson and senior guard Chris Clement should continue to provide significant ballhandling and three-point shooting assistance from the bench. 

Henderson asserts that the addition of seven perimeter weapons will provide added flexibility for his primary scorers. Junior forward Denton Koon, for instance, who was second on the team in scoring behind Hummer last year with 10.5 points per game, will be relieved of his backcourt duties in order to operate more freely off the ball.

More importantly, Henderson feels the additional support at the guard positions will help his team overcome a problem it suffered for much of last season: losing close games. Last year, seven of the Tigers’ 11 losses were decided by six points or fewer. Henderson attributes some of Princeton’s late-game struggles to his team’s inconsistent guard play, which he feels has improved during this offseason.

“Where … last year we lost a lot of close games, a good heady guard takes you out of those situations,” he said. “At the end of the game where you just needed somebody to get open, I think we have that ability now.”

While the program’s concerted effort to stock its backcourt will pay dividends in some areas, it may come at a cost to others. Resources in the paint, for instance, will be somewhat less abundant.

With the loss of the 6-foot-7-inch Hummer, 6-foot-9-inch forward Mack Darrow ’13 and 6-foot-11-inch center Brendan Connolly ’13, who contributed a combined 65.2 minutes per game last season, the 2013-14 version of the team is a markedly smaller one. Of the nine players added to this year’s roster, seven are 6-foot-5-inches or shorter.

The size concern translates to a rebounding one. Even with the team’s height last year, they averaged just 31.0 boards per game — the second-worst in the Ivy League. Still less encouraging is the fact that Hummer, Darrow and Connolly provided more than a third of those rebounds, averaging 10.7 together. Henderson recognizes the issue but is hopeful about his team’s chances to resolve it collectively.

“We weren’t particularly a great rebounding team last year,” he conceded. “But I think [sophomore forward] Hans Brase is gonna make a huge step. I see Denton Koon filling up the void there. T.J. got almost five a game, so I see that continuing.

He added that he expects help on the boards from his guards as well as from 6-foot-10-inch freshman forward Pete Miller, who he anticipates will play significant minutes during his rookie season. 

Henderson has taken tangible steps to improve his team’s rebounding numbers this year. Every day before practice, a new tally is posted in the Tigers’ locker room noting how many times each player should have boxed out during the previous practice and how many times he actually did. The tallies, which Henderson calculates daily by reviewing practice film, also include statistics on how many times players succeeded or failed at hustling back on defense.

For Clement, physically tracking these two facets of the game has provided special motivation.

“It’s good to have that accountability,” he said. “You’re seeing it, but your teammates are seeing it, too.”

While the team will certainly miss Hummer’s dominant post presence, Clement feels that his absence has forced the Tigers to establish a heightened focus on fundamentals.

“We don’t have that one person — just by pure athleticism — that can really just bail us out,” he said. “We’re gonna have to talk a lot more on defense … continuously move around, screen away and get our teammates open … [the personnel change] can either be a blessing or a curse.”

Hazel adds that no single player — even the 2013 Ivy League Player of the Year — can make or break Princeton’s ability to score.

“[Our offense] adjusts really easily to the personnel that you have,” he said. “Each person has a specific skill set that they can take advantage of … and you can use the offense to play to your suit.”

Henderson stated that many of the points replacing Hummer’s 16.3 per game will come from three-point shooting. Last year, the team boasted a downtown percentage of 39.5, thanks in large part to current senior forward Will Barrett. Barrett led the nation in three-point accuracy, hitting a blistering 51.6 percent of his 93 attempts. Barrett and the rest of Princeton’s sharpshooters will help to compensate for the diminished role of the team’s inside presence.

What Princeton lacks in body size it makes up for in roster size. With 18 players, the squad is deeper than it has been in over eight years. In Clement’s eyes, the added cast members have radically improved the team’s pace and efficiency at practice.

“Every single drill, every single time we have a chance to scrimmage — you know that you’re competing for a chance just to be on the practice floor,” he said. “People are coming for each other’s throats.”

With lots of new faces, added finesse and an increased emphasis on rebounding even among its smallest players, this year’s rejuvenated squad will put its hard work to the test Sunday in Jadwin Gymnasium, where the Tigers will host Florida A&M in their season opener.

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