On Saturday, the men’s basketball team (22–8 overall, 10–4 Ivy League) has the opportunity to go where the program has never gone before: the Sweet 16.
Since the men’s NCAA Tournament was expanded to 64 teams in 1985, Princeton has only won in the first round three times in 14 attempts, beating UCLA in 1996, UNLV in 1998, and Arizona on Thursday. After each of the two previous first round wins, though, Princeton floundered in their second game, crashing out of the tournament before advancing to the second weekend. Princeton will be hoping that the third time is the charm.
“Obviously that’s what we’re working towards,” senior forward Tosan Evbuomwan said in a Friday press conference. “[The Sweet 16 is] the next step. There’s a game in the way of that. So that’s [what] we’re putting all our chips in on.”
Standing in the way of another week of March Madness for the Princeton men is seventh-seeded Missouri (25–9, 11–7 Southeastern). Led by first-year head coach Dennis Gates, they boast an impressive regular-season resumé that includes nine wins over NCAA Tournament teams, and a 92–85 victory over Princeton’s Ivy League rival Penn. They defeated 10th-seeded Utah State in the first round, 76–65, and are seeking their fifth Sweet 16 appearance since the expansion to 64 teams.
For sophomore guard Blake Peters, the matchup holds extra significance: his mom is from the Show-Me State, and her parents attended the school he and his teammates will face Saturday.
“Obviously for my grandparents, this is a game of big significance. I just told them, ‘go Tigers,‘” he said, riffing on the schools’ shared mascot.
“Whatever way it goes, I’m sure they’ll be happy,” he added. “But [it’s] just another game for me.”
Although they aren’t nearly as big as Princeton’s first-round opponent, Arizona, Missouri still poses plenty of problems for Princeton. Chief among them is Missouri’s efficient, balanced offense. They rank in the top-25 nationally in assists (21st, with 16.1 per game), effective field goal percentage (20th, 55.3 percent), and fastbreak offense (19th, 13.8 points per game). They are a deep team as well, averaging 25.5 bench points per game (33rd nationally).
Missouri has two players who average over 15 points per game, in guards Kobe Brown and D’Moi Hodge. The pair also shoot over 40 percent from three-point range. Against Utah State, they combined for 42 points while shooting eight-for-14 from deep.
“Hodge might be the best shooter we’ve seen in a long time,” head coach Mitch Henderson ‘98 said. “[He] hit five threes [Thursday]. We made four for the whole team.”
“[Brown is] playing great basketball,” he added. “His skill level is outstanding. He sort of figures out a way on offense, [and] he’s such a good dribbler.”
On defense, Missouri is generally weak, but extremely opportunistic. Although they rank just 235th in field goal defense (44.6 percent allowed) and 288th in scoring defense (74.3 points per game allowed), they are second nationally in steals, with 10.3 per game.
For a Princeton team that has occasionally struggled with turnovers this season, Missouri presents a challenging matchup, and not only because they steal the ball a lot. Missouri also takes good care of the basketball, ranking first nationally in turnover margin (averaging 5.9 fewer than their opponents). Princeton, meanwhile, is 312th in steals per game, picking up just five per contest, and has a negative turnover margin.
In recent games, Princeton has been better at taking care of the ball, coughing it up just five times against Yale in the Ivy Madness final and 11 times in the win over Arizona, performances which fell under their season average of 12.4. The Orange and Black also picked up eight steals in their NCAA first-round win.
Aside from the turnover battle, another key for both teams will be rebounding. Fortunately for Princeton, they have a massive advantage over Missouri in this category. Princeton ranks 14th in the nation in rebounding margin (out-rebounding opponents by 6.4 boards on average), while Missouri is 350th out of 352 Division I programs in the category (averaging being out-rebounded by 7 per game). Princeton is also coming off of a phenomenal rebounding performance against Arizona, in which they out-rebounded their significantly taller foes; Missouri, meanwhile, lost the rebounding battle by six to Utah State.
Of course, dominance on the glass is not a perfect indicator of success; one need look no further than Friday’s matchup between one-seed Purdue and 16-seed Fairleigh Dickinson, in which Purdue met their nation-leading average rebounding margin of 10 but still lost. However, if Princeton can control the glass, it should help mitigate any advantage Missouri has in the turnover margin, as well as any shooting troubles that bleed through from the Arizona game.
Should Princeton win, they will be just the fourth-ever 15-seed to make it to the Sweet 16, and just the second-ever Ivy League team to do so, joining the 2010 Cornell squad. A 15-seed has advanced to the tournament’s second weekend each of the past two seasons; Oral Roberts became the second-ever 15-seed to do so in 2021, before Saint Peter’s made the Elite Eight in 2022.
“We’re playing our best basketball right now,” Henderson said. “I’m really enjoying watching the way [the players are] going about their business.”
Wilson Conn is a head editor for the Sports section at the ‘Prince.’
Please direct any corrections requests to corrections[at]dailyprincetonian.com.
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