ASBURY PARK, N.J. – Maybe Cinderella is the wrong term for what Princeton basketball is doing in the NCAA men’s tournament.
The Tigers have looked more like the Big, Bad Wolf.
Exerting sheer physical dominance for the second straight game, the 15th-seeded Tigers dispatched seventh-seeded Missouri 78-63 Saturday in the Round of 32 and are headed to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1976.
And so Princeton (23-8) rolls into the South Regional in Louisville to face the winner of third-seeded Baylor and sixth-seeded Creighton on Friday night. The Tigers are the first Ivy League program to reach the Big Dance’s second weekend since Cornell in 2010.
Princeton is the fourth No. 15 seed ever to advance to the Sweet 16, joining Florida Gulf Coast (2013), Oral Roberts (2021) and Saint Peter’s (2022).
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Missouri (25-10) finished tied for fourth in the SEC standings and posted wins over Tennessee (twice), Kentucky, Arkansas, Iowa State and Illinois. Those Tigers simply got manhandled in Sacramento, California, on Saturday, outrebounded by double figures, held to 35 percent shooting, carved up on both ends like a Thanksgiving turkey.
And so New Jersey mid-majors continue to put the Madness in March. Fairleigh Dickinson also is following in Saint Peter’s footsteps, having knocked off No. 1 Purdue as a No. 16 seed. The Knights face FAU on Sunday night.
Five takeaways from Saturday’s win:
Tosan the defender
During the halftime on-court interview, Mitch Henderson was asked about the importance of ace senior Tosan Evbuomwan needing to do more (he had seven points and two assists at the time). The question missed the point. The point/forward was doing exactly what was needed – directing traffic against Missouri’s pressure, finding the open man, and shutting down Missouri’s All-SEC star Kobe Brown.
San Diego is not exactly right next to Sacramento, but same state, close enough for Ryan Langborg. The senior guard staked Princeton to a fast start with 15 first-half points. That clearly gave Princeton a shot of confidence after a shaky shooting performance in the opening-round win over Arizona.
Elite ball-handling, defense
The top item on Princeton’s scouting report was ball security. Missouri came in averaging 20 points per game off turnovers thanks to 10.3 steals per game, second in the nation.
Princeton committed just six turnovers. It was a ball-handling clinic against pressure.
That, in turn, helped Princeton defend in the half court, and defend it did. The Tigers’ transformation into an elite defensive squad, which happened late in the season, is the biggest reason they’re still dancing.
Respect the Ivy
If you watched any Ivy League basketball this season, you know the co-champions – Yale and Princeton – were way better than a No. 15 seed. And third-place Penn wasn’t far behind. That Princeton would receive such a poor seed was not only a seeding fail but a metrics fail. The Tigers have trouble scheduling, High-majors avoid the Tigers like the plague, which is why they gladly accepted a neutral-court meeting with Iona at Kean University in December. So the difficulty scheduling hurts Princeton’s NET, but it has little to do with the Tigers’ quality.
Bottom line: The Ivy League is much better than the selection committee and many others thought. They all know it now.
The performance of Princeton and FDU, on top of Saint Peter’s last year, has galvanized an entire state. Where the Tigers are concerned, we’ve moved beyond cute story and into serious-question territory: Can this team make a run at the Final Four?
After watching the past two contests, it would be foolish to say no.
Story Credit: usatoday.com