Princeton coach Mitch Henderson/Photo by John Blaine
PRINCETON — Though Christmas is fast approaching, the Princeton Tigers aren’t exactly in a festive mood.
After falling to 3-6 with an ugly loss to Fordham Saturday, coach Mitch Henderson has noticed his team preparing for Thursday’s Mercer County showdown against Rider with a bit of an extra edge.
“It’s a little surly, and that’s OK,” Henderson said Wednesday. “We have to be feeling something. I wouldn’t expect everyone to be jolly around here.”
The Tigers have good reason to be upset. Coming into the season with NCAA tournament expectations — they were voted first in the Ivy League’s preseason media poll — Princeton has shown some alarming flaws early, the most notable being their inability to hold on to late leads.
In four of their six losses, the Tigers couldn’t maintain halftime advantages. The issue came to a head against the Rams at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center, when Princeton coughed away a 10-point lead in the game’s final three minutes.
That dynamic creates an interesting issue for Henderson, as the players who have been struggling down the stretch are the same ones that built the early cushions.
“My mom used to say ‘don’t rob Peter to pay Paul,’” he said. “If you fix one problem, you can create another. I think there is a good balance here of trying to fix what’s going on.”
That being said, Henderson also didn’t deny that he might try to tweak his lineup. Freshman forward Hans Brase was effective in significant second-half minutes against Fordham, and sophomore center Bobby Garbade seems to have a chance to crack the rotation.
“I think we’ll probably make a change, I’m not sure yet though,” Henderson said. “The nine guys we’ve been playing — 10 now with Bobby Garbade — those are going to be the guys. That’s a non-answer, but we’ve got to see a little bit more of Hans, because he provides some scoring for us.”
Both Brase and Garbade are also possible solutions to one of the Tigers’ other big problems — rebounding. Princeton was outrebounded by 11 by both Fordham and its previous opponent, Drexel.
Henderson knows that these are the kinds of trends the Tigers can’t afford to allow to continue.
“If we’re having these same kind of talks in January, we’re going to be in trouble,” he said.
Offensively, the team hasn’t found a consistent secondary scorer to compliment senior forward Ian Hummer, who at the moment leads the team in points, rebounds and assists. Juniors T.J. Bray and Will Barrett have been inconsistent, and sophomore sharpshooter Clay Wilson appears best utilized off the bench.
“I don’t think we’re going to have some star emerge in the next two months,” Henderson said. “I don’t think there is a knight in shining armor on this team. I think we’re balanced and we need to remain balanced. I think its going to be a ‘who’s next’ kind of a year.”
Fortunately, Rider is in many ways an ideal opponent at this point in Princeton’s season. The Tigers have had problems against smaller, quicker opponents like the Broncs, so it figures to be a good gauge of Princeton’s ability to correct its past mistakes.
“I like that we’re playing Rider for a number of different reasons,” Henderson said. “Its close, a local rival, but also we get a chance to get right back out there and work against what’s been showing its head a little bit.”
With the Tigers’ first Ivy game not until Jan. 12 against Penn — and with league play not beginning in earnest until Feb. 1, after exams — Princeton does have some time to correct its course before it risks jeopardizing its goals for the season. At some point, however, that added edge in practice will need to translate to game day.
“What we’re learning is how hard it is to win, and you can kind of go one way or another with it,” Henderson said. “Are you going to learn how to win, or is this going to be a problem for the rest of the year?”