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Tigers motivated to make NCAA bid after close loss last season

Just six points across two games kept the Tigers from taking the Ivy League title outright, and a two-point loss to Harvard in the waning days of the season kept them from sharing the league title and a chance for a playoff game with Yale. This year, in the 2016-2017 season, the Princeton Men’s Basketball team hits the court as experienced and as hungry as the school has seen them in a long time.

Having gone to the Big Dance last in 2011, the Tigers have long since shown they are a force to be reckoned with among the Ancient Eight. Since their tournament appearance, they have not once finished below third place in the league. One challenge of late, however, has been a surplus of younger team members and lack of a veteran presence in their rotation. Since 2014, the Tigers have not had a senior among their top five in minutes played. In addition to their woes last season, in both veteran leadership and impact on the stat sheet, the team lost star center senior Hans Brase to a knee injury. Without this difficult combination of injury and close losses, the Orange and Black could have easily been the ones going toe-to-toe with the nation’s best this past spring.

“Certainly, last year was heartbreaking. Losing two games by a combined total of six points to win the league,” senior guard Spencer Weisz noted, “but that’s something that comes with the territory of the Ivy League.”

This year, with Brase back in the lineup and with another year of grueling battles under their belt, the Tigers look raring to go. They can look to proven weapons like their playmaking guard Weisz, slashing and dynamic senior guard Steven Cook, and senior forward Henry Caruso. Caruso in particular made a huge leap his junior year, leading the Tigers in scoring with 15 points a game (up from 6.1 points the previous season), shooting an efficient 52.6 percent from the field.

The ability to find the bottom of the net is not lost upon the Orange and Black as a whole. In the 2015-2016 campaign, the Tigers ranked first in points per game in the Ivy League at 79.4 and came in second for field goal percentage at 46.4 percent.

Just as exciting for the Tigers is the continued development of their young underclassmen, whose talents were on full display last season. Sophomore guards Myles Stephens and Devin Cannady will certainly be looked on for more this year. Stephens appeared in 29 games last season, putting up 6.6 points per contest. Cannady was a firecracker off the bench, ranking third on the team in scoring at 11.6 and shooting a scorching 45.6 percent from deep.

Cannady was the focal point of perhaps the most exciting game in the Ivy League basketball last season. Facing Columbia on the road and down by ten with under eight minutes remaining, the Tigers came back but found themselves ultimately down five with just 29 seconds to go, 73-68. It was here Cannady would shine, scoring eight straight points (as Princeton fouled Columbia into free throws to stop the clock) to bring the game level, forcing the teams to go into overtime at 76 apiece. After a rocky start to overtime, the Tigers would overtake the Lions yet again, with Cannady continuing to light up the defense en route to 23 points, and an 88-83 victory for Princeton.

This is a team that has been through battle together and become quite familiar with how each member plays.

“We went from a little inexperienced to being very old and very experienced. As long as the seniors continue to play [like] they’ve been there before, nothing should really rattle us that much,” head coach Mitch Henderson said. “We talked about this as a group. Last year’s ancient history for us. We’re going to lean heavily on the guys that have the experience.

The ability to remain composed under daunting circumstances will be critical if Princeton wishes to represent the Ivy League in NCAAs come March. Moreover, the end of the season becomes even more exciting with the change to the Ivy League postseason this year. Prior to 2017, the Ivy League remained the one Division 1 basketball conference where the representative to the NCAA tournament was decided by record, as opposed to an intra-league single-elimination tournament. This year, however, the top four teams will compete in a tournament to decide who earns the bid to the Big Dance. The possibility of an at-large bid, however, is still possible for any team.

“This year we’re really looking to get at it, looking to be a top-four team in the league, make it to the Palaestra, and have a shot at making that bid to the NCAA tournament.” Weisz commented.

With their arsenal and years of experience, the sky’s the limit for this 2016-2017 Tiger squad. Henderson pointed out that by now, they know how to play with each other – the final frontier comes when they push themselves.

“We learned how to win games with a disciplined approach defensively and looking for each other on offense.” Henderson said. This year, though, he wants his team “to try new things, push new boundaries, fail, keep pushing [themselves] to new limits.”

According to Henderson, “We have a lot of room to grow.”

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