Two years ago, Mitch Henderson was coaching a Princeton team that was basically on sabbatical.
The Ivy League had called off sports again amid the pandemic as other leagues and the NCAA pushed ahead so the Tigers blended in with other hoops junkies and watched March Madness like fans. Henderson ordered pizzas and smoothies, gathered the Tigers at their on-campus gym, and they watched tournament games on the big screen.
“That was fun and we got to do something,” Henderson said. “It really brought us closer.”
Princeton’s bonding period over a season of Zooms and tournament watch parties fueled the Tigers’ growth into this season’s brainy basketball bullies of March. See ya, Arizona. Maybe next year, Missouri.
Oh, and that’s not the delivery driver this week dropping pizzas off at Jadwin Gym. That was Phil Murphy, the governor of New Jersey, who made a cameo appearance at a practice before the Tigers left for their first Sweet 16 since 1967. Murphy raised his arm with the rest of the Tigers and coaching staff and broke the huddle on the three count with “together!”
“I don’t think any of us have had a governor roll into practice,” Tigers standout Ryan Langborg said, laughing. “That was a really cool experience. But at the same time, it was just another day at the office.”
The cubicle is getting cramped.
Politicians, professors, media hordes, anyone who can snag a spot has popped by the gym to glean insights on how the 15th-seeded Tigers have pulled this off. Ousting second-seeded Arizona by 4 points looked every bit an upset; blowing out Missouri by 15 in the second round did not.
“Things are going to be different as much as I try to keep it normal,” Henderson said. “At Princeton, we don’t get this that often. I love that they’re getting a chance to feel like celebrities.”
Take 2022 Ivy League Player of the Year Tosan Evbuomwan. He picked up food at Winberie’s — “where extraordinary people are regulars” — and received a standing ovation. Henderson, himself a March hero for Princeton under Pete Carril in the 1990s, was shuttled with his players to New York for spots on CNN and “The Dan Patrick Show.” Blake Peters became a March meme when he channeled Kevin Garnett and yelled “ anything is possible!” Even late night host Jimmy Fallon dropped a lyric that “Missouri got served by some old Princeton nerds, now you’re busted” in a campy song about the spate of extreme upsets.
Up next, Princeton’s biggest game since the 1967 team that boasted three All-Ivy League first-team players lost to North Carolina in the Sweet 16,- when only 23 teams were in the tournament. The Tigers are 9½-point underdogs to No. 6 seed Creighton on Friday in Louisville, Kentucky, according to FanDuel Sportsbook.
Still, Princeton has yet to be overwhelmed by the big stage. Missouri lost as a 6½-point favorite and Arizona was a 13½-point favorite.
Henderson recalled some advice former Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan once offered about the tournament.
“All you’ve got to do is win six game in a row,” Henderson said. “It is a bit of a math thing.”
Princeton kids love a good equation and the late John Nash is perhaps more well-known than Carril, the basketball legend who died last summer. The downtown university store didn’t have a single tournament T-shirt in the window, or on the racks. The stately buildings that house Princeton’s clubs — private social and networking facilities for students and alumni — seemed naked without banners and flags that would fly at more traditional basketball schools.
“It’s not a very big sports school,” sophomore Elise Kait said inside the student union. “I think the athletes are probably all pretty excited. I’d say a good number of students are. But I’d say a good number of them don’t really care.”
Kait was likely to juggle game updates as she hits up a performance Friday night of Princeton’s rock ensemble, PURE.
“It’s unfortunate it happened at the same time so I can’t really cheer on the guys as much,” ensemble singer Samara Samad said. “But that’s how the cookie crumbles”
The Tigers practiced Tuesday at the same time “Star Wars” actress Kelly Marie Tran was speaking at the school’s center for equality. Many of the Tigers consider themselves movie buffs. Langbord, the senior guard, had a midterm essay due this week on the Federico Fellini film “Amarcord.” The Tigers made it a habit of watching movies together before every game. One of last weekend’s selections? The Tom Hanks hijacking film “Captain Phillips.”
Just ask Arizona, the Tigers are the captains now.
“I should have said that in the postgame press conference,” Langborg cracked.
Langborg and Evbuomwan are also focused on the NBA but as fodder for senior theses. Evbuomwan, Princeton’s British big man, is writing about “How Diversity in Executive Management in the NBA Affects Team Performance.” Langborg is researching how traveling through time zones affects players, results and how that could factor into sports betting lines.
Hey, didn’t the Tigers just fly 2,800 miles to Sacramento, California, and win two games?
“Maybe it doesn’t make that much difference after all,” Langborg said, laughing. “It would be hard to throw all those other studies I’ve been looking at out the door.”
What did go out the door? His deadline. Langborg was granted a one-week extension on completing the thesis.
“You’d be surprised at these Ivy League schools, You’d think they’re not going to give you any leeway on this stuff. I have personal relationships with so many professors,” he said.
Langborg, who hit a jumper and then a layup to give the Tigers the lead for good against Arizona, will play next season at another school as a graduate student.
There’s no guarantee that the 47-year-old Henderson, who has only one losing season in 11 years at Princeton, will stay much longer, either. He could parlay this deep run into a job at a school where scholarships and other support await. It’s lately a Jersey thing — Shaheen Holloway bolted Saint Peter’s for Seton Hall after last season’s Elite Eight run and Farleigh Dickinson’s Tobin Anderson used last week’s monumental 16-over-1 win against Purdue to leave for Iona.
Henderson sidestepped questions about his future.
He recalled a lesson from his past, when Carril told Henderson when he was hired, “don’t be me.” Henderson’s retort: “You’re in the Hall of Fame.”
Henderson, though, has grown the program in the era of an Ivy League Tournament and the game has evolved to the point where there is no more Princeton offense in Princeton’s offense. There was not a single backdoor cut — a staple in Carril’s heyday and the spark that punctuated Princeton’s famed upset over UCLA in 1996 — in last week’s wins.
Henderson has picked the basketball minds of national championship-winning coaches such as Jay Wright and Tony Bennett and said he realized “sustained winning over time is on the defensive end.”
One thing Henderson won’t do and that is compare this team to the ’96 team. The photo of Henderson forever frozen with his arms outstretched in his victory leap after that upset remains the iconic snapshot in program history. His players bust his chops over his hang time.
“Why didn’t we try to replicate that moment and all of us just jump up and pump our fists?” Langborg said.
Maybe they will get another chance.