January 30 and March 4, 2016. Those two dates separated the Princeton Tigers from the NCAA Tournament, relegating them to the National Invitation Tournament.
In years past, Ivy League didn’t play a postseason tournament to decide who gets the conference’s automatic bid. The regular-season winner was granted the opportunity to play in the NCAA Tournament. This season, the conference is implementing a four-team postseason tournament to determine who receives the auto-bid. While that could have benefited the Tigers last year, it wasn’t an available route for them in 2015-2016.
After opening conference play with two easy wins over Penn and Brown, Princeton suffered 79-75 road loss to the Yale Bulldogs — on January 30. The Tigers rebounded by crushing the Bulldogs at home, 75-63, but the damage had been done.
If Princeton had ended the season with that lone loss to Yale, the two teams would have had to play one another to determine who would receive the Ivy League’s auto-bid… but that is where March 4 comes into play.
Harvard’s Patrick Steeves sank a pair of game-winning free throws and the Crimson blocked a last-second shot to defeat the Tigers, 73-71. That loss to Harvard cost Princeton any chance to claim an outright or shared title. In the event of a shared title, Princeton could have earned a one-game playoff for the auto-bid, but that dream died against Harvard. Since they couldn’t get the league’s auto-bid, the Tigers missed out on the NCAA tournament and headed to the NIT.
In the opening round of the NIT, Princeton was bounced, suffering an overtime loss to the Virginia Tech Hokies. That loss ended one of the most productive seasons in school history. Looking at the talent the Tigers return in 2016-2017, they could make noise around the nation once again.
Princeton lost only one player from last year, Mike Washington. And his absence shouldn’t be to gaping, as he only tallied 15 points last season.
During the 2015-’16 season, the Tigers were ranked No. 65 in KenPom. That was the Tigers’ best ranking since 1998, the year they went 27-2 and were a No. 5 seed in the NCAA tournament. Entering this season, Princeton is returning 99.3 percent of its scoring from last year’s team.
The biggest returnee to this Tiger team is senior forward Henry Caruso.
He had a strong junior campaign, leading Princeton in points, steals and rebounds. The 6-foot-4 forward, who averaged 15 points and 6.2 rebounds per game in 2015-’16, enters this season as a consensus preseason All-Ivy League First Team player and one of the top candidates to win the Player of the Year Award in the conference.
Along with Caruso, the Tigers return sophomore Devin Cannady and fellow senior Spencer Weisz. Cannady delivered an impressive freshman season in New Jersey, converting 46 percent of his three-point attempts. Weisz was a second-team All-Ivy League player. The point guard averaged 10.8 points, 5.2 rebounds and 3.9 assists per game last season.
Princeton also gets back stretch four, Hans Brase, who missed all of last season due to a knee injury. Two seasons ago, the 6-foot-8 forward 11.5 points per game for the Tigers, so Princeton is gaining way more than what it is losing this year. The Tigers can form one of the best small-ball lineups in college basketball–the kind of lineup that helped Villanova claim a national title last season.
If Princeton experiences a late-season collapse, loses in the conference tournament and misses the league’s auto-bid, its non-conference schedule has enough high-end games that if the Tigers win enough of them, they could claim an at-large bid.
To open the 2016-’17 season, Princeton travels to Provo, Utah, to take on perennial West Coast Conference contender BYU. The Tigers also take on VCU, California, Hawai’i, Saint Joseph’s and Monmouth during their non-conference schedule. Add two games against Harvard–which is receiving a ton of preseason hype–and Yale each, Princeton could make a strong case for an at large-bid if it fails to claim an auto-bid.
Princeton has all the ingredients to be one of best mid-majors this season. It should once again create an efficient offense and turnover-forcing defense within a schedule which offers multiple opportunities to record strong statement wins during the non-conference portion of its schedule. The 2016-’17 season has the chance to be the Tigers’ best season in school history since Bill Bradley took the school to its only Final Four in 1965.
Be aware of the Princeton Tigers, because they mean business this year.