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Trying to build off victory, Tigers face stiff competition

20140208_MensBasketball_SewheatHaile_5988Coming off a rough homestand, the Tigers head out for what looks to be their toughest weekend of the season. After going 1-1 against two of the weaker teams in the Ivy League, Princeton (13-6 overall, 1-4 Ivy League) now stand at seventh in the conference and must take on some of the best and (literally) biggest of the Ivies, Brown and Yale.

Brown (12-8, 4-2) has been no easy opponent when defending its home turf against Ivy opponents, posting a 3-0 record there heading into Saturday. The game is certainly looking to be a shootout, with Princeton and Brown holding the first and third spots in league scoring, respectively. The three-point shot has proved a huge weapon for these two teams this season. Princeton currently averages over 10 made three-point shots a game, already having taken more threes this season than it did all of last year. Brown has been averaging just over seven made threes, while shooting the highest three-point field goal percentage in the league, at 38.8 percent.

Unfortunately for the Tigers, the Bears have been forcing opponents into poor shots all season. They are the best in the conference in opposing shooting percentage, holding them to a mere 37.7 percent from the field and 27.7 percent from behind the arc. It was apparent  from last weekend how different of a team Princeton can be when its offense is flowing. It is clear that the Tigers need to emulate the kind of shooting they put on against Cornell, as another stagnant and inconsistent performance, like their second half against Columbia, could knock them out of Ivy League contention for good.

More worrisome than the three-point game is the Bears’ intimidating presence down low. Senior forward Will Barrett and sophomore forward Hans Brase have a tall task ahead of them, as they prepare to face two players that use their size to tremendous effect. Brown’s big men, Rafael Maia and Cedric Kuakumensah, are first and seventh in the Ivy League, respectively, in total rebounds on the season. In addition, Brown leads the league in rebounding. Kuakumensah especially has been a force to be reckoned with, as he leads the Ivy League with 2.7 blocked shots per game. Even more impressive is his doing so in just under 23 minutes per game. When asked about how the team would deal with such strong defense down low, senior captain T.J. Bray noted the team just needs to keep attacking.

“You can’t think about shot blockers in the lane. If they block your shot, they block your shot,” he said. “If a team’s a little bigger, [we] have to go a little bigger [ourselves]. You just have to be physical against them. They’re pushing, [and] you have to push right back.”

The battle down low can make or break this game for the Tigers. They have given up a 44.6 percent field goal shooting to teams this year, second to last in the Ivy League, only above Cornell. They have also gotten bullied at times down low, a point on full display in the second half of the Columbia game. The Tigers allowed multiple and-1’s and backdoor cuts to allow the Lions to seize the momentum and get right back into the game. It certainly does not help matters that the Tigers are ranked dead last in the league in rebounding. As with Cornell, the path to victory begins at the defensive end.

“Against Cornell, we played defense for 40 minutes,” Bray said. He also noted that pulling out a win will depend on “a lot of other things [they] can control. Defensive rebounding, just playing solid defense all around. Offensively, you have nights that you’re on and you’re off.”

Though the strength of the Tigers’ interior game will certainly be critical, the most exciting part of this matchup looks to be the duel between the Ivy League’s two leading scorers, point guards Bray and Brown’s Sean McGonagill. Despite the Tigers’ disappointing season, Bray has been excellent across the chart, averaging over 17 points and five assists per game, all the while with a 55.8 field goal percentage, one of the highest clips in the country, let alone among point guards. McGonagill, though less efficient overall than Bray, still gets 18 points per game, while shooting 42 percent from deep. When asked about how he feels about going head to head with McGonagill, Bray insisted the goal is still to remain within the team’s offense.

“[The stats] don’t really mean much to me,” Bray said. “Both of us would take team success over individual success.” He does admit though that McGonagill “lit [Princeton] up a little bit” in last season’s finale and that “it’s fun playing against one of those guys you respect.” In Providence, McGonagill went off for 24 points, eight rebounds and five assists against the Tigers, his finest game of the season.

Yale (11-9, 5-1) likely will not prove to be any less tough than Brown. The Bulldogs come into this weekend with a four-game win streak and are tied for first in the league. They moved into joint first by heading into the tough crowd at Cambridge and handing Harvard its first loss at home and in the Ivy League. The Bulldogs can attribute much of their recent success to a revamped defense, which is holding teams to 36.7 percent from the field and 28.6 percent from deep during this streak.

As with Brown, the Tigers have to worry about how much size they are giving up down low. Yale boasts a big front lineup in forwards Matt Townsend and Armani Cotton. Cotton especially could be a threat, as he looks to build on the double-double he had at Harvard. However, the primary focus for the Tigers will probably be Justin Sears. The sophomore forward, a New Jersey native, has been strong in league play, as he put up 21 points and 11 rebounds against Harvard to push his team to the top of the standings.

Though the hopes of an Ivy League crown are slim at best, Bray maintains the mood of the team is still upbeat.

“1-4 isn’t how we want to start, [but] everyone comes in every day and works hard. We’re playing for each other.”

In the face of such a challenge, team unity will need to be stronger than ever.

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