Maybe Cinderella is the wrong term for what Princeton basketball is doing in the NCAA Tournament.
The have Tigers 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 in Saturday’s Round of 32 and are headed to Sweet 16 for the first time since 1967. The margin of victory was the largest ever for a No. 15 seed in the Big Dance.
“They’re playing absolutely fearless and unafraid of anyone,” head coach Mitch Henderson said.
And so Princeton (23-8) rolls into the South Regional in Louisville to face the winner of third-seeded Baylor and sixth-seeded Creighton Friday night. The Tigers, who also bodied around second-seeded Arizona in the Round of 64, are the first Ivy League program to reach the second weekend of March Madness since Cornell in 2010.
“The world looks at it as two upsets, but I feel like we’re supposed to be here,” senior forward Tosan Evbuomwan said. “We have a lot of confidence in what we’re doing.”
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).
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 Saturday — outrebounded 44-30 (including 16-8 on the offensive glass), outscored 19-2 in second-chance points and held to 41 percent shooting. They got carved up on both ends like a Thanksgiving turkey.
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 nine turnovers, limiting Missouri to 10 points off of them. It was a ball-handling clinic against pressure.
“It’s an unreal feeling to do this with my guys and the coaching staff,” Evbuomwan said. “It’s been a few years in the making. We love to work with each other and push each other, and it’s showing. A really tough group of guys, and it’s all coming together at the right time.”
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 Purdue as a No. 16 seed. The Knights face FAU Sunday night.
“I guess there’s something in the water,” said senior guard Ryan Langborg, who paced all scorers with 22 points. “It’s great to represent New Jersey and be able to bring it home for all the people there. We’re over the moon.”
1. Tosan the Defender
Don’t be fooled by Evbuomwan’s modest nine points. 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.
That last part was particularly impressive. A 6-foot-8, 250-pound senior forward, Brown averages 16 points and 6 rebounds per game, shooting 56 percent from the field. With Evbuomwan glued to his hip, he ended up with 12 points on 5-of-13 shooting, and most of that came in garbage time.
Missouri came in averaging 80 points per game. Princeton’s transformation into an elite defensive squad, which has happened late in the season, is the biggest reason why they’re still dancing.
“They keep their body in front of their guys,” Henderson said. “Good old-fashioned, tough-nosed defense. Also, it’s so hard to guard in our league. Everything we saw the last two games, we saw in our league regularly. I know you guys say it’s Arizona and Missouri. For us, it’s the same action, just different players. You got to keep your body in front of ’em and contest shots.”
2. Langborg, Peters deliver
San Diego is not exactly next to Sacramento, but close enough for Langborg, who staked Princeton to a fast start with 15 first-half points. That gave Princeton a shot of confidence after a shaky shooting performance in the opening-round win over Arizona.
Langborg finished with 22 points, six rebounds and four assists, absolutely punishing Missouri for over-helping on Evbuomwan.
“It’s always nice to see the ball go into the net,” he said. “I’ve got to credit the guy next to me. Tosan was finding me.”
Sophomore guard Blake Peters has come on strong as an instant-offense sub, and against Missouri he delivered 15 second-half points on five 3-pointers. Afterward Henderson raved about how he speaks fluent Chinese (Peters interjected that it’s not fluent, but close).
“He wants to be Secretary of State,” Henderson said. “He’s absolutely unflappable…very calm under pressure.”
Peters’ grandparents are Missouri grads and big fans of that school’s teams. They hosted a watch party Saturday.
“They’re very passionate Tiger fans, but I know they were cheering for their grandson today,” Peters said. “That’s what makes things like this so special, is to do it in front of your family here, watching back at home.
“Yeah, I hope they’re proud of me.”
3-A triumph of program-building
Unlike the rest of college basketball, the Ivy League shut down sports for the entire 2020-21 season due to the pandemic. From March 2020 until the late spring of 2021, Henderson did not see his players at all.
The fifth year of eligibility offered to all athletes by the NCAA didn’t help Princeton; postgrads are ineligible in the Ivy League. So last spring Henderson bade farewell to two All-Ivy League players as they entered the transfer portal (Jaelin Llewellyn went to Michigan; Ethan Wright to Colorado). Princeton hardly missed a beat. In fact, the Tigers got better.
That’s a huge testament to what Henderson has built in 12 years at his alma mater’s helm. And maybe, just maybe the basketball Gods are paying one forward. At at a time when rosters everywhere are revolving doors, Princeton, which has zero transfers, is reaping the benefits of continuity.
“I’ve always dreamed of playing deep into the tournament,” Henderson said. “As a player, got to the second round a couple times, never got beyond it. I feel like for these guys, it’s unbelievable.”
4-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 a serious-question territory: Can this team make a run at the Final Four?
“In the tournament each group has a special life,” Henderson said, “and this one has a really special life.”
After watching the past two contests, it would be foolish to say no.
Jerry Carino has covered the New Jersey sports scene since 1996 and the college basketball beat since 2003. He is an Associated Press Top 25 voter. Contact him at [email protected].