PRINCETON — Princeton knew what it was bargaining for with its tough non-conference schedule, so it is with clear eyes that the Tigers prepare to tackle perhaps their biggest challenge.
After two tough loses last week to Northeastern and Rutgers, the Tigers travel to upstate New York for a Wednesday showdown with Syracuse — the sixth-ranked team in the nation. That may not be great news for the team’s win-loss record, but in the one-bid, no-tournament Ivy, everything is geared toward preparation for league play.
“We want to play a tough schedule,” coach Mitch Henderson said before practice Monday. “We’re not hiding away from what we are. Our opener on the road (at Buffalo) was tough. The downside of scheduling is getting some tough losses, but everything we do is to prepare us for the league.”
Both Northeastern and Rutgers effectively used zone defenses to deny Ian Hummer the ball and clog the Princeton offense. Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim is legendary for his teams’ long, athletic 2-3 zones, and this year’s squad is no different. The Orange features a frontcourt of 6-foot-9 Rakeem Christmas, 6-foot-8 C.J. Fair and 6-foot-9 freshman DeJuan Coleman.
“Syracuse, they’re big, but they play an unusual zone that shrinks the court quite a bit,” Henderson aid. “We’re going to have to find seems, and we’re going to have to be really smart with the ball.”
Syracuse does, however, have some big question marks as well. Gone are Fab Melo, Dion Waiters, Kris Joseph and Scoop Jardine, who combined for 58 percent of the Orange’s offense last season. Its win over a good San Diego State squad was distorted by the fact that it was played on a windy aircraft carrier.
In the backcourt, Syracuse returns Brandon Triche, its third-leading scorer from a season ago. Boeheim has turned point guard duties over to 6-foot-6 Michael Carter-Williams, who has been impressive in his small early sample size.
“He’s very talented, just a really good player,” Henderson said of Triche. “I’m not sure you can limit him to much, but you have to make sure he’s guarded at all times. We’re long, so we’ll try to use our length.”
The Princeton backcourt has struggled to knock down shots from the perimeter so far this season, with T.J. Bray and Chris Clements shooting a combined 11 percent (3-27) from 3-point range. The cavernous Carrier Dome is also a notoriously difficult place for shooters. While the Syracuse zone isn’t the traditional kind that lets shooters shot over the top, it’s hard to imagine a Tigers victory if that trend continues.
“Making shots is going to be huge for us,” Bray said. “If we don’t, it’s going to make things a lot tougher, but I’m feeling confident with my shot. I’ve just got to keep shooting and hopefully they start going down.”
Another big area of concern is rebounding. Despite having more size up front, Princeton was out-rebounded by Rutgers, 40-23.
While there are certainly a lot of ominous signs for the Tigers, they are a team whose core has proven it can go into tough environments and not simply compete, but win. Last season they traveled to Tallahassee, Fla., and knocked off the Florida State Seminoles, so while the game was scheduled to prepare for league play, Princeton is still very much gunning for an upset.
Winning is, after all, the best form of preparation.
“We have a lot of work to do, but the goal is always the same,” Henderson said.