SACRAMENTO — For the second straight NCAA men’s basketball tournament, a No. 15 seed from New Jersey has charmed and bludgeoned its way to the Sweet 16. Just as St. Peter’s went from cute to dangerous in record time last year, Princeton now stands as more than a great story. It is a threat to keep up this disturbance.
A first-round upset of second-seeded Arizona wasn’t sufficiently chaotic. So Princeton blew out No. 7 Missouri, 78-63, on Saturday at Golden 1 Center to advance to a South Region semifinal next week in Louisville. And let’s say it now: The winner of Baylor-Creighton is in for a headache. These Tigers can play with either team.
They’re big and athletic, skilled and tough, and blessed with the resourcefulness to win in many different ways. Don’t categorize them plainly as a tough out. They’re locked all the way in, and it wouldn’t be surprising if they matched the St. Peter’s run and made it to the Elite Eight.
“They’re playing absolutely fearless,” Princeton Coach Mitch Henderson said.
With guard Ryan Langborg splashing three-pointers and slashing hard and finishing through contact at the rim, Princeton tore apart Missouri’s full-court pressure defense. It was a thorough dissection. Missouri had the lead for just 32 seconds of this game. The rest of the time, Princeton forward Tosan Evbuomwan was controlling the game without scoring much and his teammates were attacking every Missouri weakness.
Princeton managed to beat Arizona with its “C” game, but this time, the Tigers were sharp. And right now, their best measures up to just about anybody.
“The world looks at us as two upsets,” said Evbuomwan, who had nine points, nine rebounds and five assists. “But I feel like we’re supposed to be here. We have a lot of confidence in one another, what we’re doing. There’s definitely no letup with this group.”
The Tigers played with the swagger of a team that belonged. After one of their more ragged performances of the season, they were determined to add some beauty to their resolve.
Langborg dominated the game early, softening Missouri’s defense with deft shooting. He scored 11 of the first 13 Princeton points. Against Arizona, the senior guard from San Diego missed all six of his three-point attempts. On Saturday, he made three long jumpers early. He scored 15 of his 22 points before halftime.
“Shots weren’t going for any of us, really, the last game,” Langborg said. “To see the ball go through the net, it’s always a great start to the game.”
Said Henderson of Langborg: “This guy on my right was not named to any all-league teams at all, was not voted to any, and he was the best player on the floor. If you want to argue, I’m happy to argue with anybody in here.”
Princeton owned the first half. Missouri shot 11 for 30 from the field and couldn’t guard its well-rounded opponent, which often used the versatility of the 6-foot-8 Evbuomwan to break the press and create open opportunities for his teammates. When Missouri defenders guarded closely, the Princeton players blew past them for dunks and layups. Princeton, with bigger and more athletic post players, exploited Missouri’s rebounding weakness.
Late in the first half, Princeton led 33-19 and threatened to turn the game into a blowout. But Missouri scored seven straight points in the final two minutes of the half to make the deficit manageable at the break.
Princeton wasn’t done, however. The Tigers made just 4 of 25 three-pointers against Arizona. On Saturday, they shot 12 for 33. Langborg set the tone, and Blake Peters was the closer. As Missouri tried to rally, Peters made five threes and scored all of his 17 points in the second half.
For Missouri, it proved to be the worrisome matchup that Coach Dennis Gates figured it would be.
On Friday, when asked about Princeton’s underdog status as a No. 15 seed, Gates balked at the characterization.
“My thoughts are simple: You’re not in this tournament if you’re not a great team,” Gates said.
Later, he added: “We don’t look at seeding. We don’t look at anything with a number before or after the name of the institution. They earned their right. They’ve earned their right. They are a good ball team.”
Princeton (23-8) is turning into a great team. Watching the Tigers, it’s hard to imagine how they lost eight games this season. They’ve taken all their highs and lows and peaked at the perfect time. Cornell was the last Ivy League school to advance to the Sweet 16, making it in 2010. As it enters the second week of the tournament, Princeton can dream of the Final Four. The last Ivy League school to accomplish that was Penn in 1979.
It doesn’t seem like such a crazy fantasy, not when Princeton can dominate the boards, drill step-back three-pointers and finish above the rim.
“Yes, we’re going to the Sweet 16,” Henderson said. “But this is a really unique group. I think in the tournament each group has a special life. This one has a really special life.”
It’s another New Jersey team, scaring the hell out of the field. In the past two tournaments, St. Peter’s and Princeton have made noise as No. 15 seeds. And Fairleigh Dickinson just became the second No. 16 seed to triumph.
“I guess there’s something in the water,” Langborg said, smiling. “Something’s helping us.”
There’s nothing lucky about it. Princeton has gotten really good. Forget about Cinderella. The Tigers know they’re worthy.
At halftime, with Princeton upset over giving up the final seven points and allowing Missouri to creep back into the game, Henderson addressed his players. He said to be themselves. That’s all he wanted. He knew it would be enough.
“I said: ‘You know, we’re going to get on that flight, no matter what. When we get on that flight, we’re going to be us,’ ” recalled Henderson, who was a player when Princeton advanced to the second round in 1996 and 1998. “We felt like the best version of us could beat the best version of them.”
The best version of Princeton left Missouri discombobulated. The rest of the field should pay attention. The Tigers are for real.