Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Question No. 2.2.0

TigerBlog answered the first question yesterday about the greatest games and events he's seen at Princeton, with the caveat that historical significance had to be factored into the equation.

For today, the question is this: Most improbable team or individual achievements (other than comebacks, which we covered)

When TB first saw this one, he thought of one team that rose above all others when it comes to improbability. As for an individual? There were a lot of them, but he settled on one.

Unlike yesterday, TB will cut right to the chase with these two.

He'll start with the team. It's the men's basketball team from 2000-01.

The 1999-2000 Tigers included head coach Bill Carmody and top assistant Joe Scott, both of whom left after that season. Scott became the Air Force head coach in the spring, and Carmody left in early September to take over at Northwestern.

With very little time between then and when practice began, John Thompson III became the Princeton head coach. He had previously been the second assistant coach.

This was Thompson's head coaching debut, and the team he was coaching was also hit hard by circumstance.

The biggest circumstance actually happened 21 years earlier, when Chris Young was born in late May instead of after June 1. Because of that technicality, Young was eligible for the Major League Baseball draft in 2000, after his sophomore year, and by Ivy League rules he could not longer play basketball once he was a professional in baseball.

As a result, Princeton no longer had the man who was going to be as dominant a center as there would be in college basketball that year. 

Then there was Spencer Gloger, who transferred from Princeton to UCLA. In all pretty much the entire projected starting lineup was gone for one reason or another.

Out of this uncertainty grew a team that won an Ivy League championship and reached the NCAA tournament. It did so as Thompson learned on the fly as a head coach, growing quickly into someone who was a genius at managing games and building a team culture.

And the team itself was still led by its center, Nate Walton. In addition to being one of the five best passers TB has seen play at Princeton and a reliable scorer as well, Walton had a personality that galvanized his team. His leadership that year was as good as any TB has seen from a Princeton athlete.

Walton was joined by a solid cast - including Kyle Wente, Andre Logan, Ed Persia, Ahmed El-Nokali, C.J. Chapman and Mike Bechtold - that played extremely well together. The Tigers, with their coach's philosophy of "be in first place at the end of each weekend," went 11-3 in the league but won the championship by two games over Penn and Brown.

Walton should have been the Ivy Player of the Year that year, by the way.

As for the individual, there are a lot of them, but TigerBlog will go with the performance of men's lacrosse player Seamus Grooms in the 1998 NCAA semifinals against Syracuse.

Princeton had won the 1996 and 1997 NCAA titles. The focal point of those two titles, and the run at the third, was the attack trio of Jesse Hubbard, Jon Hess and Chris Massey, who'd finish their careers with 618 points in 60 games and 121 points in 11 NCAA tournament games.

Their legacy is as the greatest attack unit in college lacrosse history (depending who is making the statement but in the top three no matter who is), but that wouldn't have been the case had the Tigers not won again in 1998.

Princeton trailed Duke 8-4 in the third quarter of the quarterfinals and then came back to win 11-9. Then, in the semifinals against Syracuse, it was another 8-4 deficit in the third quarter, and this time Princeton rallied for an 11-10 victory. The final would be a 15-5 romp over Maryland.

And who was the hero of the semifinal comeback? It was none other than Seamus Grooms, who was the fourth roommate of Hess, Hubbard and Massey.

Grooms scored two fourth quarter goals in that Syracuse game, and without him, there would have been no win that day, which would have meant no third straight title, which would have meant not quite the same legacy.

Grooms finished his career with 19 goals. He chose the right moment to score twice.

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