T.J. Bray, left. Photo by John Blaine.
PRINCETON — So far, T.J. Bray’s junior season hasn’t exactly gone the way he had hoped.
First, there was the offseason knee injury that kept Bray from playing during the Tigers’ summer trip to Spain. Perhaps relatedly, the normally-accurate 6-foot-5 guard has been suffering through one of the worst shooting slumps of his career, having gone 1 of 19 from behind the arc over the course of the team’s 1-2 start.
Still, anyone who follows the Tigers can see that if Princeton is going to get to where it wants to go this season, it is going to be in large part to Bray.
He certainly has the confidence of his coach.
“Just keep shooting,” Mitch Henderson said, when asked what tells Bray. “It’s going to come.”
With Doug Davis — the school’s second all-time leading scorer — graduated, Bray is the only Princeton guard who entered the season having played significant minutes. That has put Bray in a real leadership position on a team flush with forwards but thin in the backcourt.
“A little last year, I had to take on a leadership role beside Doug, and this year it’s all my leadership in the backcourt,” Bray said before practice Monday. “It’s a little different perspective, but it’s been good so far.”
That new role was on display in Spain even though Bray wasn’t able play. His injury meant that Chris Clement and Clay Wilson got plenty of playing time, and he tried to help their progress as best he could from the sideline. Both players have seen important minutes for the Tigers this year.
“It stunk not playing, but I was able to watch every game and be there for my teammates, and we got to see what other guys could do,” Bray said. “Clay and Chris got a lot of time in the backcourt, so I tried to help them along.”
One thing that makes Bray valuable even when he isn’t shooting well is his versatility. A rock-solid ball handler comfortable running the point, he’s also not afraid to mix it up down low. He’s averaging close to six rebounds per game, tied with the 6-foot-11 Will Barrett for the team lead.
“You have to stay involved in the game no matter what,” Bray said. “If my shot isn’t falling, I can still help the team a lot in other ways — passing, rebounding and defending. My shot will start falling at some point, but until that time I’m just going to keep doing what I’m doing.”
Henderson didn’t discount the possibility that some rust might have settled in during the time Bray was recovering.
“It’s slightly new for him,” Henderson said. “He didn’t play in Spain. Really his first significant minutes were against Buffalo. We’re confident in T.J.’s ability at some point to go in the right direction.”
Henderson has plenty of reason for that confidence. Bray shot 40 percent from 3 last season, and nearly all his misses this year have been good-looking shots that have bounced around the rim and simply not fallen. Still, Bray knows that the Tigers need him to return to form sooner rather than later, so he’s been putting in extra work to get the situation straightened out.
“I’ve been working with the coaches, doing some film work to see what things are going wrong,” he said. “Other than that, it’s just about getting repetitions in, so I’ve been down here (at Jadwin Gymnasium) every day.
While everyone agrees that Bray will eventually shoot his way out of his slump, this Wednesday would be a particularly good time to do so. Princeton travels to take on sixth-ranked Syracuse, and need more than just ball handling and rebounding from Bray if it is going to upset the Orange.
Bray is looking forward to it.
“I expect a great atmosphere; the Carrier Dome is one of a kind. I think last year, winning at Florida State showed that we can be confident going into these places,” he said. “Their zone is obviously phenomenal, it’s the (premier) zone in college basketball, but if we attack it and play smart I think we have a chance to have a good shot.”