Princeton didn’t play in 2020-21 because of COVID, now they’re in the Sweet 16

SACRAMENTO — Beginning with the Ivy League tournament last week, Princeton seniors Tosan Evbuomwan, Ryan Langborg and Keeshawn Kellman knew that each time they took the court, it could be their last game for the Tigers.

On its face, there’s nothing unique about that dynamic. That’s how college sports work. But for this trio of starters, their four-year college career has been anything but normal.

As freshmen in 2019-20, their season was cut short due to COVID just before the Ivy League tournament was set to begin, taking away the chance to play their way to the NCAA tournament. In 2020-21, the Ivy League canceled the entire winter sports season. Last season, they were upset as the top seed by Yale in the Ivy League championship game.

Altogether, it put a lot on this season because despite having NCAA eligibility remaining, the Ivy League hasn’t budged from its position to limit its athletes a four-year window to compete. It’s something that Princeton, as an institution, also believes in, according to coach Mitch Henderson.

“We have [two] other seniors that have eligibility. Each one of these guys has an extra year,” Henderson said. “It doesn’t change anything for us. We’re very much about the four-year process.”

“Princeton, we’re about the growth of the student-athlete over the four-year process. I hope that’s not saying we’re a stick in the mud. It’s very much who we are. We expect them after senior year to be able to kind of go out and make pretty serious contributions in their communities.”

However, it’s still tempting to think about what this team could look like with another year together – or what this team would have looked like had the players with NCAA eligibility remaining last season had returned. Three of its five leading scorers last season – Jaelin Llewellyn (Michigan), Ethan Wright (Colorado) and Drew Friberg (Belmont) – all transferred, along with a fourth in Max Johns, who landed at Duke.

It’s possible they all could have left on their own volition, but the decision wasn’t theirs to make. The truncated time at Princeton made last year’s championship game even more painful.

“We could barely watch the [NCAA] tournament,” Henderson said.

Perhaps it makes this run even more special. The Tigers are just the second Ivy League team to advance to the Sweet 16 since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985 (Cornell in 2012 was the other) and went through a No. 2 seed in Arizona full of future pros before Saturday’s dominant win against seventh-seeded Missouri, 78-63.

Langborg, Evbuomwan and Kellman were at the heart of it.

For Langborg, the only player in the game from California, it was a homecoming of sorts. He’s from the opposite end of state, in San Diego, but as a high school senior in 2019, Langborg led La Jolla Country Day to the Division III state title with a 25-point performance in a game that also took place at the Golden One Center, the home of the Sacramento Kings.

“When we had that game, I think we had like three combined threes,” Langborg said. “I think it helped to play here before. I’m comfortable in this environment, although there was a little less people [in high school].”

On Saturday, Princeton didn’t have any problem shooting. Langborg drilled four 3-pointers and teammate Blake Peters hit five. It all came against a physical Missouri team that suffocated a great 3-point shooting team, Utah State, just two days earlier.

It wouldn’t have been possible without Evbuomwan and Kellman’s presence inside. They might be the only two players on the Princeton roster with the size and strength to match up with Mizzou down low, yet Princeton still dominated the rebounding battle, 44-30 – with 16 coming from freshman Caden Pierce.

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