Web Exclusives

March 15, 2004

Men’s basketball looks to hook the ’Horns
The Tigers to play Texas in Denver on Thursday

By Brett Tomlinson

Basketball practice ends in the early evening, but for Judson Wallace ’05, the sport rarely leaves his thoughts. “When I’m not studying, I’m watching ESPN, watching basketball,” he says. Since his childhood days in Atlanta, he has tuned in to see college basketball’s best teams play in March. He saw Princeton’s Gabe Lewullis ’99 make a backdoor layup in the closing seconds an upset win over UCLA in 1996, and a week later, he watched his beloved Georgia Bulldogs lose to Syracuse on a late three-pointer by John Wallace (no relation).

On Thursday, the Princeton center will try to make a more personal March Madness memory as the 14th-seeded Tigers take on Texas in the first round of the South Regional in Denver (7:20 p.m. Eastern on CBS). His 15.5 points and 6.4 rebounds per game led Princeton to a 13-1 record in the Ivy, a league championship, and the team’s first trip to the NCAAs since 2001, when Wallace was still a high school senior.

“Everybody comes to school thinking you’re going to go to the NCAA tournament four years,” Wallace says. “I know as a freshman, I didn’t realize how hard it was. Being able to go this year, I’m overwhelmed.”

Thirteen Tigers will make their first NCAA trip, and tournament veterans Ed Persia ’04 and Andre Logan ’05 are just as excited about the trip to Denver. John Thompson ’88, who has been to five tournaments as a coach, felt the energy as his team watched the selection show Sunday night. “Even though you know you’re going to be called, you know your name is going to appear, there’s definitely excitement once you see it,” he says.

Playing Texas – a Final Four team last season with four returning starters – sounds like an intimidating task. But Princeton has some confidence that it can hang with the Longhorns. It lost 57-54 in a regular season game at Texas last year with a chance to tie at the final buzzer. “I would like to say they were disappointed to see us, but who knows, they might have wanted to play us,” Wallace says. “We’re certainly not going to sneak up on them.”

Persia, a Beaumont, Texas, native, says that the Tigers can disrupt the Longhorns’ speedy offense by slowing down the pace of the game and playing zone defense. But Texas (23-7) still has talented scorers in the halfcourt set, including forward James Thomas, guard Royal Ivey, and guard Brandon Mouton, who led his team with 21 points in its last meeting with Princeton. “Mouton is an unbelievably athletic player,” Persia says. “He can shoot it from the outside, and he can slash to the basket.”

Thompson had little to say about his team’s game plan, partly because he had not seen Texas play this season. “I feel good about the way we’re playing right now, and that’s what’s important,” he says.

The Tigers (20-7) started the season 4-1 before suffering through close losses to UC-Irvine, Rutgers, Lafayette, Oklahoma, and Minnesota en route to a 7-6 non-league record. They struggled to find a way to win at the end of each loss, but in the Ivy season, the tables turned. The Tigers came up with just enough key shots, steals, and rebounds to finish on top. Since Princeton’s lone league loss, a 15-point setback against Penn February 10, it has won nine straight.

Scott Greenman ’06, who started all 27 regular-season games, credits balance for the Tigers’ success in close contests. “When it comes down to those situations, we can just stay with the offense, and somebody is going to step up and hit a big shot,” he says. “It’s been different people all year.”

Persia, who missed the last five games of the season with a thigh injury, plans to play Thursday, and he expects the game to be much closer than his team’s blowout first-round loss to North Carolina in 2001.

“We were just happy that we made it our freshman year because nobody expected us to win [the Ivy League],” he says. “This year, we’re going in with a totally different mindset. We’re going in there knowing that we have a chance to win, and we want to win.”

Brett Tomlinson is PAW's sports editor.