LOUISVILLE – The measure of a college basketball team’s accomplishment always comes at the end, when the final buzzer sounds on the final game – almost always a loss.
Princeton’s accomplishment this March was measured in the roar of a standing ovation from its many fans during an 86-75 loss to Creighton in Friday’s NCAA Tournament’s Sweet 16.
The 15th-seeded Tigers (23-9) didn’t have enough weapons to keep up with the sixth-seeded Bluejays (24-12) and bowed out after making the program’s deepest March Madness run since 1967 – and becoming the Ivy League’s first representative to crack the second weekend since Cornell in 2010.
Along the way they busted brackets, proved they belonged, enhanced a legacy and energized a state.
1-Tosan vs. Kalkbrenner
Although they didn’t go head-to-head a whole ton, the showcase of the standout big men was as good as advertised.
Tosan Evbuomwan was the most dynamic player on the court, carving the Jays up with his high-post passing and even conducting few old-school backdoor-cut bounce passes that would have made Pete Carril proud. The 6-foot-8 point forward’s virtuoso ball-handling had to impress NBA scouts. Although he has a fifth-year of eligibility and can’t take it at Princeton (the Ivy League prohibits postgrad players), he’s primed to make money playing ball.
Creighton’s 7-foot-1 Ryan Kalkbrenner was the key to the Bluejays’ quick second-half start. They dumped down to him on three straight trips and he finished all three times. And once again, he didn’t foul, which is an underappreciated art for a rim protector.
Two bigs, two vastly different styles, but great theater.
2-Mitch Henderson and Princeton, perfect together
You’d be hard-pressed to find a more comfortable coach-college fit than Henderson and his alma mater. Ivy League fans and Jersey hoop-heads understood Henderson’s coaching chops. Now the rest of the country gets it.
But Henderson is more than a coach. He’s a mentor to his guys and an ambassador for his university, where he’s deeply ingrained in the fabric. He’s a true believer in the college’s credo of education through athletics. Will he make Princeton his life’s work, like Pete Carril did? It’s hard to expect that of anyone, especially with the money a high-major can dangle.
But it’s also hard to picture him coaching anywhere else.
3-Give Creighton credit
The Jays have so many weapons and use them all with a spacing, passing and unselfishness that any purist can respect. The coaching of Greg McDermott also stood in stark relief compared to that of the last two times Princeton dissected, Arizona and Missouri. He knew right were to attack the Tigers’ defense and his players followed his cues. This team could win it all.
4-Jadwin Gym south
The Yum Center holds 22,000, and after a chunk of sad Alabama fans hit the exits following the top-ranked Tide’s stunning loss to San Diego State, Princeton had the majority of the crowd in its corner. Orange was the predominant color, especially in the lower bowl, and San Diego State’s faithful went all-in behind the underdog, too.
Creighton fans showed well – as Big East observers can attest, the Jays have a huge fan base that travels – but for much of the contest, and especially during the first half, the building sounded like Jadwin Gym South.
But Princeton fans should take a bow. Tigers supporters took over the Hyatt Regency downtown, threw a raucous pregame pep rally for the players and coaching staff as they boarded the bus to the arena, and showed the world that Ivy Leaugers love their hoops just as much as the sport’s biggest brands, if not more.
Each March, we are reminded why there is no better sporting event than the NCAA Tournament.
Last year, Saint Peter’s carried that banner. This year, it was Princeton, which outlasted all four No. 1 seeds.
The basketball Gods reward fidelity to the game. Princeton, playing with an inspiring combination of moxie and precision, earned that reward. The Big Dance of 2023 was better for it.
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].