Princeton basketball. The name instantly conjures up visions of backdoor cuts, low-scoring games and teams that won with ruthless execution rather than talent. Our consumption of sports is built on narratives. A large portion of the time, the narrative is constructed of falsehoods or exaggerations. The narrative serves as an easy way for our brains to construct patterns out of somewhat random events. It is a coping mechanism for the fact that sports, like life, is often full of chance occurrences we cannot predict beforehand.
For the last few years, the "Princeton" narrative really did not fit the team. Under Syndey Johnson, the Tigers played athletic, exhilarating basketball. Gone was the over-reliance on the 3-point shot. In its place was an offense that revolved around Kareem Maddox and Ian Hummer, a pair of athletic forwards that created matchup problems all over the court.
The Tigers also featured players who were capable of and were allowed to go one-on-one to score. Despite what the mainstream media might have said, Princeton was not 30 seconds of backdoor cuts followed by a 3-point shot.
The 2012 edition, under new coach Mitch Henderson, more closely resembles the stereotypical Princeton team. The three point attempts and percent of baskets assisted on are back up near the highs of the Joe Scott and John Thompson III eras. Last night at Jadwin, Princeton fit into its narrative as comfortably as Pete Carrill fit into an old sweater.
Harvard came into the game sporting the best statistical defense of any Ivy team in the KenPom era. Only one team, Connecticut, had managed better than 1.01 points per possession against them this season. In the first half, the numbers looked good (Princeton scored 22 points on 30 possessions), but the eyes belied the truth: Princeton's incessant cutting had gotten them more open looks at the basket against Harvard than any team besides the Huskies.
In the second half, those easy looks became more frequent. The Tigers made no fewer than seven layups, frequently breaking down the Harvard defense with Hummer passing out of the post to cutting Tigers. Hummer scored 20 points, had nine rebounds and six assists. He also shut down Crimson sharpshooter Laurent Rivard, holding him without a three point field goal. In short, it was one of the most impressive performances I have seen this season.
Narratives are so prominent for a reason: they contain elements of truth bound together in a convincing way. For the last few years, the narrative about Princeton contained far more history than fact. On this night at Jadwin, however, the story was what the story was supposed to be.
It wasn't quite death by a thousand cuts for Harvard, but it was close enough.
at PRINCETON 70, HARVARD 62 02/11/2012
HARVARD 21-3 (7-1) -- K. Wright 7-11 2-2 16; B. Curry 5-10 4-4 15; K. Casey 5-10 1-5 12; O. McNally 2-7 0-0 5; L. Rivard 2-7 0-0 4; C. Miller 3-6 0-0 8; C. Webster 1-4 0-0 2; S. Moundou-Missi 0-1 0-0 0; J. Travis 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 25-56 7-11 62. PRINCETON 13-10 (4-3) -- D. Davis 1-6 1-2 3; T. Bray 4-7 3-6 12; I. Hummer 6-15 7-9 20; P. Saunders 2-3 0-0 4; B. Connolly 5-9 1-1 11; M. Darrow 3-6 3-4 10; D. Koon 4-4 2-2 10; J. Sherburne 0-0 0-0 0; B. Hazel 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 25-50 17-24 70.
Three-point goals: HARV 5-18 (O. McNally 1-4; K. Casey 1-3; B. Curry 1-2; C. Webster 0-1; L. Rivard 0-3; C. Miller 2-5), PRIN 3-11 (P. Saunders 0-1; D. Davis 0-3; I. Hummer 1-3; M. Darrow 1-1; T. Bray 1-3); Rebounds: HARV 27 (K. Wright 12), PRIN 30 (I. Hummer 9); Assists: HARV 11 (B. Curry 4), PRIN 15 (I. Hummer 6); Total Fouls -- HARV 22, PRIN 15; Fouled Out: HARV-None; PRIN-None.