SportsProf

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Sunday, November 27, 2005

Lafayette 57 Princeton 46 (in Princeton)

I think that both the Princeton men's basketball team and I went into today's home game against Lafayette somewhat buoyant for several reasons. First, Drexel, the team that put Princeton away in the season's opener for both, went on a mad dash last week and almost beat both #1 Duke and #16 UCLA, showing that a team that had graduated four seniors only 6 months earlier is a very good team. Second, Princeton went up to Lehigh and socked the Mountain Hawks (formerly Engineers) by 12 in a game that wasn't that close in their own building. Third, Lehigh was predicted to finish fourth in the Patriot League, with Blue Ribbon picking a relatively young Lafayette team (only two upperclassmen get meaningful playing time) last. Fourth, a reasonably rested Penn team (and one with its least depth in years) did beat Drexel last night, but struggled to do so, winning by 8 over a team that was playing its fifth game in nine days.

I did come into the game wondering whether Penn was 21 points better than Princeton, having beaten Drexel at home by 8 with Drexel having beaten Princeton at home by 13. At the start of the day, I didn't think so, figuring that a reasonably rested Drexel team might have beaten the 2005-2006 Penn Quakers at this junction in the season. I also came into the game wondering whether Princeton would be overconfident, given that it had beaten Lehigh by 12 about a week earlier on the road (and the game wasn't as close as the score suggested).

The answers to those to questions are maybe and definitely yes. Princeton looked awful today against Lafayette, showed little urgency and lost by 11 (the margin was 14 until reserve guard Max Schafer hit a long three at the final buzzer). The game wasn't that close (Lafayette led by 10 at the half, led by 16 at some points and Princeton didn't score its first point in the second half until 6 minutes into it), and, once again, Lafayette head coach Fran O'Hanlon showed his mastery at coaching offense, moving the ball around and substituting to get the best matchups. His Leopards moved the ball with zip and confidence, hit the boards and clogged the lanes better than the cold-shooting Tigers, who got some good looks but had trouble hitting the open jumper. While Noah Savage had 17 for the Tigers and Scott Greenman 14, many of those came during a desperate try to get back into the game with about 7 minutes remaining. The problem is, you can't play poorly for 33 minutes and then try to steal a victory, especially against a well-coached team that played with a sense of purpose and energy during the entire game.

There are plenty of places to get good game recaps, so I won't provide a detailed one here. I will provide some observations about the Tigers and, from what I've read, the Penn Quakers:

1. Princeton forced the ball too much today. Starting 2G Geoff Kestler had his shot blocked twice on the first possession, and there was a memorable possession during the final five minutes when junior forward Luke Owings tried a hook shot that got blocked.

2. The Tigers' woes at the center position continue. Patrick Ekeruo tries hard, but he's limited on offense and, with the exception of one outstanding move where he put the ball on the floor from the foul line and converted a layup, he is not a shooter and other teams lay off him defensively. Starting C Harrison Schaen is on a very short leash, and doesn't play either end with much confidence. He had a good amount of confidence on the defensive end two years ago when he was a freshman, but he doesn't look like he and Coach Joe Scott are on the same page yet. Whatever happened to the great passing Princeton centers of the past 30 years? Are any of your kids ready for admission to the school?

3. The Tigers did not look that crisp out there at either end of the floor. Scott played 9 players. Starting were Schaen at center, Savage and Owings at forward and then Kestler and Greenman at guard. Seeing a good amount of playing time were Ekeruo, reserve guards Schafer and Alex Okafor and sophomore forward Kyle Koncz -- a junior, two sophs and a frosh (Okafor is the freshman of the group). Okafor also is limited offensively, and Koncz did not do much to distinguish himself today. Starter Owings, counted on to be a mainstay, got into foul trouble and eventually fouled out without contributing much.

4. Noah Savage appears to be Princeton's best player, but opposing teams will put their best defender on him and dare the other guys to beat them. He worked hard for his shots today, but there were many sequences when he just wasn't open. He only took 6 shots (making 5). I don't think the Tigers will win with Harrison Schaen, their 6'10" center, shooting the three (he took one too many and spent most of the game on the bench). Kestler and Okafor received some good pre-season press, but right now they are overmatched, especially on offense. The other three freshmen -- Noah Levine, Michael Stritmatter and Jason Briggs -- appear to be at the bottom of the depth charts. Greenman brings a lot of energy at times, but I thought he didn't show nearly as much energy during the bulk of the game as he did during the final 10 minutes. As the team's captain, he probably needs to rev the engine into overdrive earlier in contests. Still, he's a keeper, but after Savage and him, it's hard to say who the next best player is (okay, so it's probably Luke Owings, but after that it's a toss-up).

5. I'd bet that with Savage and Levine, Princeton has set an NCAA record for the first time two guys named Noah are on the same Division I basketball roster.

6. Princeton clearly has some work to do. They took a step forward with the win at Lehigh, and then a step backwards today. It's clear from his substitution pattern that Joe Scott is still trying to find the right five. Several starters were on the bench within the first ten minutes of the game.

7. Why do they keep Jadwin Gym so hot? The temperatures in the gym were parching, so I guess that Princeton's endowment must be performing so well in an energy crisis that they can afford to overheat their gym.

8. The choice of halftime entertainment was interesting, two streetballers performing a routine. That type of hoops is contrary to the Tigers' way of playing, and it was amusing to see the performance. I'm sure that I'm not the only one who noticed the irony.

Now as for Penn. . .

Their starting lineup looks to be the following:

C Steve Danley
F Frederich Ebede
F Mark Zoller
G Ibby Jaaber
G Eric Osmundson

with the first four players off the bench being G David Whitehurst, G/F Brian Grandieri, and Fs Brennan Votel and Tommy McMahon. The starting lineup has two seniors (Osmundson and Ebede, the latter of which played sparingly in his first three years, this after being touted by some as the next Ugonna Onyekwe) and three juniors (the remaining three). Off the bench are essentially one soph (Whitehurst), one "red-shirt" freshman (the Ivies don't red-shirt, but Grandieri missed last year because of injury) and two pure freshmen (McMahon and Votel). Danley and Jaaber are first-team all-league caliber players, while Osmundson's stepping up last year was a major reason why Penn won the Ivies. Zoller just makes play after play. Whitehurst is regarded as an athlete and a shooter, but people thought going into the season (and still do, as one game does not a season make) that Penn would need contributions from its bench in order to repeat as Ivy champs and win its 9th Ivy title in 14 seasons.

So what happened last night? Against the emerging Drexel Dragons, Brian Grandieri came off the bench to score 12 points and grab 15 rebounds. Has Penn Coach Fran Dunphy found another gem, the way he did Mark Zoller? The entire season will tell, but if you're a Penn fan, you have to be a little giddy from last night's game, not because you beat a surprisingly tough Drexel team, but because you perhaps had a serious question answered last night -- who will step up and fill a meaningful part of your rotation.

It's not that as Brian Grandieri goes, so will the Penn Quakers. There are plenty of veterans who will power the Penn engine -- Jaaber, Danley, Osmundson and Zoller. It's just that many teams have gone into a season with 3 to 4 players (the Princeton team Chris Young's freshman year featured Brian Earl, Gabe Lewullis, Mason Rocca and Young, but had to rely upon so many frosh that it just couldn't beat a more experienced Penn team for the title) and couldn't finish the job. Penn will need a deeper bench -- and it could well be on its way.

After the Lehigh game I was thinking that perhaps I was too harsh in picking the Princeton Tigers to finish fourth in the Ivies. That's what happens when you make predictions, you get a form of predictor's remorse. I'll stand by that prediction, and I think that a young Princeton team learned a tough lesson at the expense of a young Lafayette team today -- you have to go out there and take your victories game in and game out. Princeton would have gained a lot of confidence today if it had built on the Lehigh win. Instead, it took a step backwards by failing to honor it.

Kudos to Lafayette Coach Fran O'Hanlon and his young bunch today. You went on the road and beat a storied program in their (relatively empty) building. That's no small feat, especially for a young team.

3 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

well done analysis, and, speaking as a long time tiger hoop fan, all too true. glad you are mentioneing the opposing coaches - fran dunphy and o'hanlon - and probably a couple of the ivy coaches - are better than joe scott, who is a bitter disappointment an anti-motivator and a martinet

4:12 PM  
Blogger SportsProf said...

Thanks for your comment.

I think that Joe Scott's success at Air Force requires Tiger fans to be more patient with him. It took him four years to get what he wanted accomplished at Air Force, and Princeton re-conversion to the orthodox version of the Princeton offense might take that long. Right now, he's still coaching a roster that's mostly filled with kids he didn't recruit, and that's hard for a coach who coaches a strict style.

John Thompson III did a nice job in his four years at Princeton, but he coached a liberal version of the Princeton offense. To his great credit, in his first year he coached the team to a title in the best coaching job done at Princeton in a long time. Five players left the program, three starters began the season injured, and both Bill Carmody and Joe Scott had taken jobs elsewhere. to his detriment, his championship teams were among the weakest at running the Princeton offense and were among the "worst" (if such a word can be used appropriately in this context) of Princeton's championship teams. A much more orthodox Princeton Offense team, the '98-'99 team under Bill Carmody, went 27-2 and was the best Ivy team in recent memory. That type of excellence takes time, as does a re-conversion from liberalism to orthodoxy.

It may be that Scott's "old school" version of the Princeton Offense is too famiiliar back east and is solved more easily by opposing coaches (the way the 46 defense in football was), and it may be that Scott's relatively older school style of coaching doesn't relate as well to Ivy kids as it does to Air Force kids. I think that now, though, it's too early to tell and he should be given a few years to show what he can do.

As for other Ivy coaches, it's hard to argue that Fran Dunphy isn't the dean of them and the best in the league. He's earned that moniker for now. Scott, though, did the best college coaching job in the past 40+ years when he led Air Force to an at-large berth in the NCAA tournament two years ago. I don't think that you can argue that any other Ivy coach is better than him, at least now.

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