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Princeton Quietly Moving Back to Contender Status

January 30, 2010 Columns No Comments

PROVIDENCE, R.I. – While Cornell and Harvard grab most of the Ivy League headlines, there’s a quiet resurgence going on in one corner of the league.  Without fanfare, Sydney Johnson has Princeton on the way back to contention.

The Tigers were picked second in the Ivy League’s preseason poll this year, which might have seemed a little optimistic to some.  But there could be no mistaking where the program has been headed since the former league Player of the Year took over nearly three years ago.  It’s been on the rise from the beginning.  And now that Johnson has added some young talent to go with his veterans, the Tigers may be ready to surprise some people.

In Johnson’s first season, he took the same players who struggled mightily and made them a respectable team.  The difference from year-to-year was of the night-and-day variety despite a 3-11 Ivy League record.  Last season, the Tigers were the last team to be undefeated in league play en route to finishing tied for second place at 8-6.  This past weekend, the Tigers began league play by sweeping Brown and Yale on the road, which improves their overall road record to 6-4.  At 11-5, the Tigers are just two wins away from last season’s total.

Princeton starts a pair of seniors in Marcus Schroeder and Pawel Buczak and a junior in Dan Mavraides.  Senior Zach Finley also plays significant minutes.  While they all provide leadership in addition to the obvious contributions, the Tigers are getting a big boost from some younger talent.

“I do think we have good young players, and I don’t know if everybody knows that,” Johnson said after the Tigers knocked off Brown with some solid defense.  “If you look at our program, I think we have some older guys who are providing leadership, but we’ve got some talented younger guys.”

Leading the way are sophomores Douglas Davis and Patrick Saunders, who comprise two-thirds of the starting backcourt.  Davis was an honorable mention All-Ivy selection as a freshman last season and leads the team in scoring this season.  He shoots from long range at a better than 40 percent clip, and he had that on display Friday night as he was 4-8 from behind the arc.  Saunders entered the weekend second in the Ivy League in three-point percentage at 48.5 percent and had a good stretch before league play began.

It doesn’t stop there, though.  Look into the frontcourt, and you see talented freshmen Ian Hummer and Will Barrett.  Hummer is fourth on the team in scoring and came through on Friday when Buczak and Finley got in early foul trouble, and has also won a league Rookie of the Week honor.  Barrett hasn’t played a lot of minutes thus far, but they are increasing of late and players like him – long, with the ability to shoot and talented enough to play at a slightly higher level – aren’t overly common in the Ivy League.  Barrett is buried behind veterans, but is worth keeping an eye on as the season progresses.

Players like Davis and Saunders have helped accelerate the return of Princeton to the status of a contender in the league.  The players Johnson inherited from the prior staff have all improved, but Davis came in and made an impact right away and Saunders has come alive this season.  It was already clear that Johnson was picking up some key recruiting wins, and now we’re seeing the early results of it.

Johnson knows that his team isn’t going to get a lot of attention easily, not with talk of a possible at-large between Cornell and Harvard if the right scenario happens.  But they are playing well and looking very much like a team on their way to being a contender, and while that might not happen this season, they’re on track to do so next season.

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