For the third straight year, a No. 15 reached the Sweet 16. For the second straight season, a private school from New Jersey is the noisemaker in the NCAA Tournament.
Princeton coach Mitch Henderson said the Tigers received celebrity treatment since returning home from consecutive bracket-busting upsets of South No. 2 seed Arizona and No. 7 Missouri. Henderson and Princeton wade deeper into uncharted territory in a South Region semifinal game against sixth-seeded Creighton on Friday in Louisville.
“I was on a show today with Coach K (Mike Krzyzewski), and he asked me the same thing,” Henderson said. “I was like, ‘Well, you tell me. What do we do here?'”
It’s not a mystery for the Ivy League champions. Henderson intends for everyone to remember what got them to this point, to stay themselves while enjoying the moment.
The Tigers (23-8) haven’t played like a No. 15 seed in their two tournament wins. They never trailed after the opening minutes against Missouri, made twice as many 3-pointers (12 to six) as their opponent and dominated the boards 44-30, all while handling the Tigers’ pressure defense.
Princeton’s Ryan Langborg scored a game-high 22 points, adding six rebounds and four assists. Freshman Caden Pierce grabbed a career-high 16 rebounds — seven on the offensive glass — to go with nine points, and Tosan Evbuomwan finished with nine points, nine rebounds and five assists.
“We’re playing a brand of basketball that’s conducive to winning at the highest levels, and that’s rebounding,” Henderson said. “You’ve gotta be physical and you’ve got to go up there and get it, and you’ve got to play tough-nosed defense.”
But the rebound margin might not be so lopsided against Creighton (23-12), and Henderson knows it. Creighton hits the boards hard, with guard Baylor Scheierman an answer for Pierce with his team-leading 8.2 rebounds per game. Ryan Kalkbrenner, the Bluejays’ 7-foot-1 leading scorer (15.7 points per game), adds 6.2 rebounds per contest.
Creighton coach Greg McDermott praised Princeton for having a “very efficient” offense.
“This isn’t a true Princeton offense, but a lot of their characteristics are the same,” McDermott said Tuesday, referencing the traditional backdoor cut sets of a bygone era. “Their spacing’s great, their cutting’s elite, their ball security’s really good and they spread you out, space you out with their ability to shoot the basketball.”
While Princeton made its first Sweet 16 in program history, the Bluejays secured their second Sweet 16 appearance in three years by shooting down third-seeded Baylor in the second round, 85-76.
Ryan Nembhard scored a career-high 30 points for Creighton, which shot 45.8 percent from 3-point range (11 of 24) and 100 percent at the foul line (22 of 22).
Not unlike Princeton, Creighton has been on a mission to show it belongs with the best. The Bluejays were ranked as high as No. 7 in the country this season and may have been underseeded on the six line.
“We definitely don’t care who we’re going against,” Nembhard said after the win over Baylor. “We respect everybody. We give everybody the respect they’re due, but at the end of the day, we think we’re just as good as anybody in the country. We come into every game thinking that mentality.”
Princeton is 11th in the country in rebound margin at plus-6.6. Creighton ranks a respectable 62nd with a plus-3.7 margin.
Creighton and Princeton have met just once before, and the Bluejays won in Omaha, Neb., on Dec. 29, 1961.
The Tigers hope to emulate the success of last year’s No. 15 seed from New Jersey. St. Peter’s made it to the Elite Eight, beating Kentucky and Purdue in the process, before bowing out in the regional final to North Carolina.
–Field Level Media