Maybe Cinderella is the wrong term for what Princeton basketball does in the NCAA Tournament.
Tigers were more like the Big Bad Wolf.
Showing pure physical dominance for the second game in a row, 15thousandThe seventh-seeded Tigers beat seventh-seeded Missouri 78-63 in Saturday’s Round of 32 to advance to the 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 play absolutely fearlessly and fear no one,” head coach Mitch Henderson said.
And so Princeton (23-8) travels to the South Regional in Louisville to face the winner of third-seeded Baylor and sixth-seeded Creighton on Friday night. The Tigers, also paired with second-seeded Arizona in the round of 16, are the first Ivy League program to reach the second weekend of March Madness since Cornell in 2010.
“The world is looking at it as two upsets, but I feel like we should be here,” senior forward Thoson Eubuamwan said. “We have a lot of confidence in what we’re doing.”
Princeton is the fourth No. 15 seed to ever reach the Sweet 16, joining Florida Gulf Coast (2013), Oral Roberts (2021) and St. Peters (2022).
Missouri (25-10) finished fourth in the SEC standings and had wins over Tennessee (twice), Kentucky, Arkansas, Iowa State and Illinois. On Saturday in Sacramento, these Tigers were simply outscored – outscored 44-30 (including 16-8 on offense), outscored 19-2 on second chances and shot 41 percent. They were sliced on both sides like a Thanksgiving turkey.
The main focus of the Princeton research report was ball safety. Missouri averaged 20 points per game with 10.3 steals per game, second in the nation. Princeton committed just nine turnovers, limiting Missouri to 10 points from them. It was a ball game clinic against pressure.
“It’s an unreal feeling to do it with my guys and the coaching staff,” Evbuomwan said. – It took several years to create. We love working with each other and pushing each other and it shows. Really tough group of guys and it’s all coming together at the right time.”
And so New Jersey’s mid-majors continue to put on March Madness. Fairleigh Dickinson is also following in St. Peter’s footsteps by knocking off No. 16 Purdue. The Knights face FAU on Sunday night.
“I guess there’s something in the water,” said senior guard Ryan Langborg, who led all scorers with 22 points. “It’s great to represent New Jersey and be able to bring it home for all the people out there. We are on the moon.”
1. Toson Defender
Don’t be fooled by Eubuomwan’s modest nine points. The forward did exactly what it needed to do — direct the drive against Missouri’s pressure, find the open man and shut down Missouri All-SEC star Kobe Brown.
The last part was particularly impressive. A 6-foot-8, 250-pound senior forward, Brown is averaging 16 points and 6 rebounds per game on 56 percent shooting. With Euboamwan taped to his hip, he scored 12 points on 5-of-13 shooting, most of which came in garbage time.
Missouri averaged 80 points per game. Princeton’s transformation into an elite defensive unit late in the season is a major reason why they are still dancing.
“They put their bodies in front of their guys,” Henderson said. “Good old, tough defense. Also, it’s so hard to defend in our league. Everything we’ve seen in the last two games, we’ve seen regularly in our league. I know you guys are saying it’s Arizona and Missouri. For us, it’s the same action, just different players. You have to keep your body in front of them and fight the shots.”
2. Langborg, Peters to deliver
San Diego isn’t quite as close to Sacramento, but close enough for Langbarg, who got Princeton off to a fast start with 15 first-half points. That gave Princeton confidence after a shaky shooting start in its first-round win over Arizona.
Langborg finished with 22 points, six rebounds and four assists, completely punishing Missouri for over-helping Eubuamwan.
“It’s always nice to see the ball hit the net,” he said. “I have to acknowledge the guy next to me. Tosan was looking for me.’
Sophomore guard Blake Peters came on strong as a substitute offensively, and against Missouri he scored 15 points in the second half, making five 3-pointers. Afterward, Henderson raved about his fluency in Chinese (Peters interjected that it wasn’t that fluent, but close).
“He wants to be secretary of state,” Henderson said. “He’s absolutely unflappable … very calm under pressure.”
Peters’ grandparents are Missouri State alumni and big fans of the school’s teams. On Saturday, they organized a watch.
“They’re very passionate Tiger fans, but I know they’re rooting for their grandson today,” Peters said. “That’s what makes things like this so special, doing it in front of your family here and (those) watching at home.”
He added: “Yes, I hope they are proud of me.”
3. The triumph of programming
Unlike the rest of college basketball, the Ivy League shut down the sport for the entire 2020-21 season due to the pandemic. From March 2020 until late spring 2021, Henderson did not see his players at all.
The fifth year of eligibility offered to all NCAA athletes didn’t help Princeton; graduate students are not eligible to participate in the Ivy League. So last spring, Henderson said goodbye to two All-Ivy League players as they entered the transfer portal (Jalyn Llewellyn to Michigan; Ethan Wright to Colorado). Princeton almost missed a beat. In fact, the Tigers have gotten better.
It’s a big testament to what Henderson has built in his 12 years at his alma mater. And maybe, just maybe, the basketball gods are paying one forward. With rosters everywhere spinning, Princeton, who has zero transfers, is reaping the benefits of continuity.
“It’s always been my dream to play deep in the tournament,” Henderson said. “As a player, I reached the second round several times, but never reached it. I feel like it’s incredible for these guys.”
4. Respect Ivy
If you’ve watched any Ivy League basketball this season, you know the co-champions Yale and Princeton have been much better than the No. 15 seed. And third-seeded Penn wasn’t far behind. For Princeton to get such a poor seed there was not only the failure of the selection committee, but also the indicators. The Tigers have trouble scheduling out of the conference; the top majors avoid them like the plague, so they happily agreed to a neutral meeting with Jonah at Kean University in December.
So scheduling difficulty hurts Princeton’s NET, but it has little to do with the Tigers’ quality.
The bottom line: The Ivy League is much better than the selection committee and many others thought. Now they all know it.
5. Jersey Baby!
Princeton and FDU’s performance at the top of St. Peter’s last year, created the entire state. As for the Tigers, we’ve gone from a sweet story to a serious question: Can this team make it to the Final Four?
“Every group has a special life in the tournament,” Henderson said, “and this one really has a special life.”
After watching the past two contests, it would be foolish to say no.
As Peters shouted on the court after the game to his interviewer and the world, “Anything is possible!”
Jerry Carino has covered the New Jersey sports scene since 1996 and college basketball since 2003. He is a top 25 pick by the Associated Press. Contact him at email@example.com.