It's the most wonderful time of the year, basketball fans. The Madness is upon us and, as has become the standard, a team of Ivy Leaguers will be taking on some of the nation's best. This year, in the not-quite-immortal words of Jack Eggleston, "It's Princeton." The 13-seed Tigers - in their first tourney appearance since 2004 - will do battle with 4-seed Kentucky Thursday in Tampa, Fla. Champions of the SEC tournament, the Wildcats boast a 25-8 record heading into the matchup and two potential NBA lottery picks. But how vulnerable is Kentucky to a major upset? Back from spring break, The Buzz's resident bracketologists (not really) debate in what is sure to be one of March's best bouts.
Question: Do the Tigers have what it takes to be a Giant (Wildcat) Killer?
Brian Kotloff: No breaks for DP Sports Editors, Kevin. We’re getting thrown right into the fire the night we get back from spring vacation.
We’ll get to your thoughts in a second, but I actually smell a potential upset in the East Region’s 4-13 game. Granted, the smell is very, very faint, but I think the Tigers have the makings of a Giant Killer. They have a few of the essential ingredients to a Cinderella team: 1. Veteran leadership – Four of Princeton’s top five scorers are upperclassmen. Experience always plays well in March, and inexperience haunts even the best teams at some point during their drive to a title. 2. A good backcourt – junior Douglas Davis, now of YouTube and SportsCenter fame, and senior Dan Mavraides are both tough guards who are capable of scoring and distributing. Cinderella teams are almost always led by veteran guards, a la Louis Dale from Cornell last season, who can control the pace of the game and their teammates’ emotions. 3. A low post presence – Second-team All-Ivy selection Ian Hummer is a 6-foot-7 load in the paint, averaging 13.9 points per game on 56 percent shooting. His ability (or inability) to battle with bigger, more athletic frontcourt opponents will be crucial in this game. 4. Balanced scoring – The Tigers have two major threats in the backcourt and the frontcourt, with four players averaging at least 11 ppg. Most importantly, Kareem Maddox, Hummer, Mavraides and Davis each have the ability to go off during any particular game.
Kevin Esteves: Very nice, Mr. Kotloff. I think you hinted at the obvious problem that Princeton will have against Kentucky in your point about Hummer: a mismatch in athleticism. That’s what burned the Quakers earlier this season when they tried to upset UK. Penn was able to jump out to an early lead, and Princeton may be able to do the same on Thursday, but it’s a whole different story when you’re tasked with controlling that athleticism for an entire game. We saw it in Turkey with Team USA during the basketball championships this past summer. Even though the American team may not have had the chemistry that other international teams may have, their superior athleticism just overwhelmed opponents – USA won gold, by the way. Now, I’m not saying that UK is comparable to the Redeem Team 2.0, but the point remains. The Tigers play great defense, but they will have to try to slow down a Wildcat offense ranked 25th in the nation and spearheaded by a lightning quick guard in Brandon Knight and a versatile forward in Terrence Jones. It’s hard to compare numbers between Princeton and Kentucky, so I’ll just resort to the Penn-UK game. My favorite stat? 1 – the number of rebounds Penn had in the 2nd half. You know it’s a good stat when it looks like a typo at first glance. To be fair, the Wildcats weren’t missing (they shot 18-for-22), but it’s awfully tough to get any rebounds — offensive or defensive — when you’re trying to outwork guys that are much more athletic than you. And the Big Blue had 11 blocks, another sign of superior athleticism and size. Princeton is better than Penn, and should keep it closer, but I don’t smell an upset here. Too potent an offense and too much athleticism.
BK: There’s no question the Tigers will be the much less athletic team in this game. But this is March MADNESS, where Vermont can beat Syracuse and Butler can come inches shy of winning the championship. What makes this tournament so great is that almost anything can happen, at least in the early rounds. Princeton coach Sydney Johnson knows that better than anyone: he played a huge role on the 1996 Tigers team that beat UCLA, 43-41, in one of the biggest upsets in history.
I see the Black & Orange using a similar formula here. Slow the game down, take care of the ball, and grind out possessions. If they can do that, throw all numbers out the window and get the athleticism factor out of your head — on a day when the Basketball Gods are in their favor (and based on the Ivy playoff game, they currently are), Princeton can beat Kentucky. With top teams losing top players to the NBA every year, the talent is more spread out and parity is on the rise in college basketball. Just last year, Butler, Cornell and Northern Iowa proved that great coaching and fundamentally sound play can allow underdogs to down more talented heavyweights. Kentucky is a young team in a transition year, so who knows how the players will respond to the bright lights of the NCAAs and the pressure of playing for Big Blue Nation away from the comforts of Rupp Arena? The Tigers are playing with nothing to use.
KE: Absolutely, I agree. Princeton definitely has a shot, and I like your idea of slowing the game down. Princeton had the top scoring defense in the Ivy League and if they can keep UK in the half-court, they can pull off an upset. But am I gonna call one here? No. The Wildcats are young and inexperienced, but I think Knight and Jones are going to be too much to handle. Sure, the Tigers can send out Ivy League Defensive POY Maddox to defend Jones, but Maddox did not exactly come up huge in Princeton’s only game against a top-tier opponent, which was Duke back in November. In a 97-60 loss, Maddox scored six points and had seven turnovers, while Duke forward Kyle Singler scored an easy 16 points in 26 minutes. Jones is a unique athlete because he can handle the rock extremely well for a guy his size and I like teams that are strong at the point and the 4-spot; so I think that duo will just be too good to stop. Anything can happen, but if I have to go with one, I’m gonna go with the Wildcats, who have bigger fish to fry and can’t afford to get complacent.
BK: I definitely wouldn’t advise anyone this week to pick the upset, but my point is that the upsets that often happen are the ones few people pick. Princeton over Kentucky would instantly rank highly among those classics. I give it a 15% chance of happening. I see this game playing out similarly to Penn’s game at Rupp (though not as extreme). The Tigers hang with the Wildcats for a half before succumbing to UK’s talent, size and athletic ability. Kentucky 73, Princeton 57.
KE: I’m going to give it a 10% chance, which is a reasonable chance. Princeton would have to get balanced scoring (which to their credit, they do have), Maddox would have to contain Jones, and the Tigers would have to stay in front of Knight. A tall task, for sure, so I see this one: Ketucky 74 - Princeton 60.
BK: After all that arguing, pretty much the same score. But if Princeton wins, you know I’ll be taking all the credit.
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