CAMBRIDGE, Mass. – The Princeton offense is well-known. It’s been talked about a great deal in recent years – one might even say it’s been discussed ad nauseum – and misconceptions about it abound. Less talked about is the defense, but right now that’s the big reason why Princeton is on it is on a roll, improving to 3-0 in the Ivy League with a 56-53 win at Harvard.
The Tigers started the season by allowing each of the first five opponents to shoot at least 40 percent from the field against them. That contributed to a 2-3 start, along with the fact that they didn’t shoot all that well in each game at the offensive end. But since then, only twice has a team shot at least 40 percent against them, indicative of a defense that has come along since that time. Behind it all is a simple philosophy, not unlike the offense, which is based on simple, fundamental basketball.
“I just think we’re really trying to focus on us,” said head coach Sydney Johnson. “If they make tough shots, then God bless them, but oftentimes tough shots rim out, they find a way to rim out, and we’ve got to find a way to get those rebounds. At least during this stretch, we’ve been able to make people take tough shots.”
In the win at Harvard, the Tigers did a good job on Crimson star Jeremy Lin, especially in the first half. Lin was just 2-7 from the field in the opening frame and finished 6-16, and while he had 19 points and helped lead a comeback that fell short, he never took over the game like he has done on plenty of occasions.
Harvard shot 36 percent from the field, the highest percentage in the three Ivy League games thus far. A week earlier, Princeton shut down Brown despite early foul trouble among their two best big men, with the perimeter players doing a great job of not letting the Bears get the ball inside. They have shown that they can defend teams in more ways than one to win games.
“I think the team is really just starting to take pride in our defense and I think we’re all kind of coming together and talking on defense and we’re getting it a little bit,” said junior guard Dan Mavraides. “I think it’s something we’re taking pride in and it’s working.”
The Crimson made a furious rally in the second half after Princeton had answers for most of it. A three-pointer by Mavraides, who along with Kareem Maddox led Princeton with 14 points, put the Tigers up 47-33 with 4:55 left, and it looked like the Tigers were well on their way. But the Crimson roared back with a 16-4 run to get within 51-49. A four-point player with 12 seconds left made it 54-53, before Maddox hit two free throws and Lin missed a three-pointer at the buzzer.
Almost as impressive, the Tigers’ 3-0 mark has come with all three games on the road and one more to come (at Dartmouth on Saturday). Then they go home for four of five, with the lone road game a weeknight trip to arch-rival Penn in between the two weekends. Winning on the road is notoriously difficult in the Ivy League except for the teams that are far and away better from a talent and experience standpoint, so this is a good start.
“We knew we were going to have to go on the road anyways,” Johnson said. “We’re just trying to grind it out. I’m very proud of how they have responded to just trying to compete every time out, every time we play. We’re just playing possession-by-possession and it’s been good so far.”
All along, Johnson is keeping it simple. A soft-spoken and understated coach, he’s concerned with how his team plays and doesn’t sweat the small stuff. His team reflects it; they strike you as low-key even on the court, even as the winning continues. He wouldn’t mind if his team didn’t get the acclaim they deserve because the bottom line is all the acclaim he needs.
Keeping it simple is a key for Maddox, who had a big game with 14 points, eight rebounds and three blocked shots. The junior forward has some good length, and against a Harvard team having to play without key big men Keith Wright and Pat Magnarelli due to injuries, that was a factor. He played easily his best game of the year and continued to play well of late after not earning a lot of minutes early on.
“He’s really focused on what he’s doing,” Johnson said of Maddox. “He’s keeping it simple.”
Keeping it simple has worked wonders for Princeton in the early going. Johnson is quick to remind us that Ivy League play is just three games old, but the way this team is playing, especially defensively, would seem to bode well for them the rest of the way. The offense is what people often talk about, but anyone watching Princeton these days has to talk about their defense.