Maybe Cinderella is the wrong term for what Princeton basketball is doing in the NCAA Tournament.
The one with the Tigers is more like the Big, Bad Wolf.
Using extreme physical dominance for the second game in a row, 15th-seeded Tigers dispatched seventh-seeded Missouri 78-63 in Saturday’s Round of 32 and are on their way 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 fearlessly and fear no one,” 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 joined 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 is looking at it as two upsets, but I feel like we should be here,” senior forward Tosan Evbuomwan said. “We have a lot of confidence in what we do.”
Princeton is the fourth No. 15 seed 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 were simply manhandled in Sacramento on 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 are carved on both ends like a Thanksgiving turkey.
The top item on Princeton’s scouting report is 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 from 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. We love working with each other and pushing each other, and it shows. A really tough group of guys, and it’s all coming together at the right time .”
And so the New Jersey mid-major continues to put on March Madness. Fairleigh Dickinson is also following in Saint Peter’s footsteps, dethroning Purdue as the No. 16 seeds. The Knights will face FAU Sunday night.
“I think 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 bring it home for all the people there. We’re over the moon.”
1. Tosan the Protector
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.
The last part is particularly impressive. A 6-foot-8, 250-pound senior forward, Brown averaged 16 points and 6 rebounds per game, shooting 56 percent from the field. With Evbuomwan glued to his hip, he finished with 12 points on 5-of-13 shooting, and most of those came in garbage time.
Missouri came in averaging 80 points per game. Princeton’s transformation into an elite defensive squad, which occurred late in the season, is the biggest reason they are still dancing.
“They keep their body in front of their guys,” Henderson said. “Good old-fashioned, tough-nosed defense. Also, it’s very hard to guard in our league. Everything we’ve seen in the last two games, we’ve seen in our league regularly. I know you’re 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 contest shots.”
2. Langborg, Peters delivers
San Diego isn’t exactly next to Sacramento, but close enough for Langborg, who got Princeton off to a fast start with 15 points in the first half. That gave Princeton confidence after a shaky shooting performance in the opening-round win over Arizona.
Langborg finished with 22 points, six rebounds and four assists, really punishing Missouri for helping Evbuomwan too much.
“It’s always good to see the ball go into the net,” he said. “I have to credit the guy next to me. Tosan is looking for me.”
Sophomore guard Blake Peters has been strong as an instant-offense sub, and against Missouri he delivered 15 second-half points on five 3-pointers. Henderson then makes a comment about how he speaks fluent Chinese (Peters interjects 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 were Missouri graduates and big fans of that school’s teams. They hosted a watch party on Saturday.
“They’re very passionate Tiger fans, but I know they were cheering for their grandson today,” said Peters. “That’s what makes things like this special, to do it in front of your family here and watch(s) at home.”
He added, “Yes, I hope they will be proud of me.”
3. A successful program development
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.
The fifth year of eligibility offered to all NCAA athletes did not help Princeton; postgrads are not eligible for the Ivy League. So last spring, Henderson said goodbye to two All-Ivy League players as they entered the transfer portal (Jaelin Llewellyn went to Michigan; Ethan Wright to Colorado). Princeton barely missed a beat. After all, the Tigers have recovered.
That’s a huge testament to what Henderson has built in 12 years at the helm of his alma mater. And maybe, just maybe the basketball Gods are paying a forward. At a time when rosters everywhere are revolving doors, Princeton, with no transfers, is reaping the benefits of continuity.
“I’ve always dreamed of playing deep in the tournament,” Henderson said. “As a player, got to the second round a couple of times, never got past it. I feel for these guys, it’s unbelievable.”
4. Respect the Ivy
If you’ve watched any Ivy League basketball this season, you know that the co-champions – Yale and Princeton – are better than a No. 15 seeds. And third place Penn isn’t far behind. That Princeton will receive a very difficult seed has not only failed a selection committee, but failed a metric. The Tigers have an out-of-conference scheduling problem; high-majors avoid them like the plague, which is why they welcomed a neutral-court meeting with Iona at Kean University in December.
So the scheduling difficulty hurts Princeton’s NET, but it has nothing to do with the Tigers’ quality.
Bottom line: The Ivy League is better than the selection committee and many others thought. They all know now.
5. Jersey, baby!
Princeton and FDU’s performance, on top of Saint Peter’s last year, has stimulated an entire state. Where the Tigers are concerned, we’ve moved beyond the cute story and into serious-question territory: Can this team make a run to the Final Four?
“In the tournament every group has a special life,” Henderson said, “and this one has a really special life.”
After watching the previous two contests, it would be foolish not to.
As Peters shouted on the court afterward, to his postgame interviewer and the world: “Anything is possible!”
Jerry Carino has covered the New Jersey sports scene since 1996 and the college basketball scene since 2003. He is an Associated Press Top 25 voter. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.