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The Improbable NCAA Basketball Success of the Princeton Tigers

After just putting his three children to bed, head coach of the Princeton Tigers, Mitch Henderson, sits back on his living-room couch with a Modelo in hand. Just the fourth 15th seed in history to make it to the Sweet 16, Princeton is the only double-digit seed still remaining in the men’s March Madness. As a result, the team has attracted attention from everyone from ESPN to CNN to prominent national sports radio shows.

The Tigers have come a long way after a season which saw them losing to Ivy League also-ran, Dartmouth, and blowing an 19-point second-half lead to Ivy rival, Yale. Since then, they have been on a roll, winning four straight Ivy League games to reach the NCAA tournament, shocking No. 2 Arizona in the first round, and thoroughly outclassing No. 7 Missouri in the second round to set up the Sweet 16 clash against No. 6 Creighton in Louisville.

With Princeton now in the Sweet 16 and a potential Final Four within their reach, the story doesn’t feel real to Henderson. He is creating new lore for the school he once led to a shocking upset against defending champion UCLA back in 1996.

All season long Henderson honored the legacy of his former Princeton coach and mentor, Hall of Famer Pete Carril, who died last summer. Although still wearing bow-tie patches on their jerseys as a nod to Carril, Henderson has largely scrapped the playbook and created a program all his own, recruiting more physical defenders and rebounders who can bang with the biggest teams in the country.

As a journalist and former Princeton player, Howard Baldwin has an inside look into this year’s tournament. Princeton has not been given the same stereotypical treatment as top seed universities such as Duke, North Carolina, and the University of Kansas; instead, the team operates in a well-resourced bubble but still allows access to the public during practices.

During a practice session prior to the Sweet 16 game against Creighton, the team’s vocal leader, Mush, and the junior reserve forward, Ox, show their confidence in stopping Creighton’s leading scorer, Ryan Kalkbrenner. The senior player, Evbuomwan, reflects on his unique skill, which has caught the eye of NBA scouts, and his complete immersion in the run to the Final Four.

The success of the Princeton Tigers comes from their dedicated coach, who, after a decade as an assistant coach at Northwestern, was determined to put his own mark on things when he arrived in New Jersey. Henderson’s sense of calm and self-reflection has been apparent during the March Madness run, and is attributed to his meditation practice. His success has caught the attention of Marsch, his close friend and former coach of Leeds United in the English Premier League.



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