Princeton-Monmouth, Men's Hoops
I'll defer to Jon Solomon's excellent "Princeton Basketball Blog" for the full recap, but I was there and have the following observations:
1. The kids at Monmouth clearly don't play for the glory of DI hoops that say the kids at Carolina do. The Monmouth gym is intimate, but my guess is that some high schools around the country put more money into their facilities than the Hawks do theirs. The plus side: the fans are really close to the action, and that was fun.
2. Why do they keep some of these gyms in the northeastern U.S. so warm, especially given that it's wintertime? Thankfully, the Monmouth fans were very hospitable, and no one looked twice at my kids' Princeton attire (a few years ago on a North Jersey beach I wore my Philadelphia Eagles' hat and was met with laser-like stares).
3. At Princeton, they give away about a dozen or so t-shirts during the game -- the cheerleaders throw them into the crowd. At Monmouth, they tossed in precisely 2.
4. Before the game, a Monmouth official approached the son of a former Princeton baseball and football standout to handle the shooting contest at halftime. Little did they know that a precious three or so years ago he helped lead his HS to the small-school state title game in Michigan (losing to Chris Webber's and Shane Battier's alma mater). In any event, the now-college junior made the layup easily, hit the foul shot on the third try, the three on his first, and then airballed a few half-court shots before (i) banking one that hit off the front of the rim and (ii) having one go in-and-out right at (or slightly after) the buzzer. Good job! The gift certificate will come in handy.
5. Okay, now for the serious stuff. First, I didn't understand Princeton's offense in the first half. Monmouth used a man-to-man defense for almost the entire first half, and I counted about four Princeton picks the entire half. The Tigers whipped the ball around the perimeter and then didn't shoot the outside shot particular well. They tried to hit an occasional cutter (usually center Zach Finley), but they didn't succeed much. Senior co-captains Kyle Koncz and Noah Savage have shown over the years they can shoot the three, but they had trouble getting open (Koncz did hit three treys in the game and had 14 points). The Tigers' best move was getting the ball inside to soph center Zach Finely, who has a fine back-to-the-basket move going to his left. He needs to work on the left hook a bit (and make it more of a "money" shot for him than it is now), but he is strong enough to get in position to take the shot. I did wonder why a sneaky quick Monmouth guard (and they had about 3 of them, and sometimes they played four guards at once) didn't drop down and try to poke the ball away when Finley did this move for what seemed to be the umpteenth time in the second half. Finley didn't show that he could go to his right, and he'll need to develop that ability, or else I fear a guard will drop down and make life tougher when he puts it on the floor. Especially in Ivy play.
6. The Tiger guards did not look particularly good, and there doesn't seem to be a consistent three-point shooter among them. They'll need that outside shooting to come from somewhere in order to free up both Finley and junior insider player Michael Strittmatter (who showed signs of having a pretty fluid game). Otherwise, opposing defenses will sag on them.
7. On the positive side, the Tigers tied the Hawks in rebounds and won the battle on the offensive glass 12-6. On the negative side, Monmouth was quicker, seemed to play with more energy and, yes, I'll say this here and risk the brickbats, the Monmouth kids seemed to want it more, or at least more enough to win the game (the battles on the glass notwithstanding, the Tigers looked more flat-footed on loose balls and the guards looked at sea at times). The final was 59-50, the Tigers got it within 6 early in the second half, but at one time Monmouth had the lead up to 17 and the Tigers really weren't in the ball game for most of the second half.
8. The Tigers don't seem to have a player who can, on a consistent basis, take over the game and make things happen. Scott Greenman was the last Tiger player who showed signs of that ability, but at that time Penn had guys named Zoller and Jaaber were much better at taking over a game for archrival Penn than Greenman was for the Tigers. Zach Finley shows signs of being able to do that from the low post, but he's not there yet. I liked what I saw of him though, despite the silly comments made by ESPN's Sean McDonough that dissed Finley during the Princeton-Duke game earlier in the year because Finley was all-state in South Dakota, prompting McDonough to remark that there are only 5 basketball players in that state. I know McDonough is well-respected, but that was a bit much (even if Princeton stunk out the joint for the first 15 minutes of the contest). Finley can play.
9. Sydney Johnson shows John Thompson-like patience on the sidelines. He doesn't yell, doesn't get into the face of his players, isn't overly annoying to the officials and seems positive and encouraging. The Tigers need plenty of patience from their coaching staff, and the Tiger faithful need to hope that Messrs. Johnson, Newsome, Earl and Greenman can recruit a squad that can summon the memories of the last Ivy team to win an NCAA basketball game -- more than ten years ago.
10. Times are tough for fans of Princeton's men's basketball team, but there not so easy in University City, either. While the Penn frosh look promising, Penn is a very young team that has had its ups and downs (and there have been many downs) this season. Two nights ago, the Quakers lost to Florida Gulf Coast, 60-30, scoring only 6 points in the first half while shooting 5.9% for the half and turning the ball over 23 times in the first half (the Quakers shot 19% for the game and had 35 turnovers). This is not Florida or Florida State we're talking about, but Florida Gulf Coast, a team that upped its record to 4-8 and is in its first year of DI play.
Yes, Ivy men's hoops fans from somewhere other than Philadelphia or Central New Jersey, there is a vacuum out there, there is a voice crying from the men's hoops trophy that's saying, "I'm available, take me, take the title, it's up for grabs." The question is, who will take the title. There's no question that the tough road to the automatic bid for the NCAA tournament runs through the two sets of back-to-back games against historic powers Penn and Princeton, but those games could prove to be more like speed bumps this year than the barricades they've proven to be over the past 35 years. Then again, it isn't as though the rest of the Ivies are tearing it up, either. Anything can happen -- and has happened, on back-to-back nights in the Ivies, and I suspect that it will be a fascinating League season this year.
All typos are mine, as always.
Have a very happy New Year!