Mitch Henderson stretches out his legs on his living-room couch on Tuesday evening in Princeton, N.J., a Modelo in hand. He’s just put his three children, ages 10, 7, and 5, to bed. The coach of the Princeton Tigers, the No. 15 seed in the South region – and just the fourth 15th seed in history to make it to the Sweet 16 of the men’s NCAA basketball tournament – is relaxing, and reflecting, after another furious day of practicing and preparation. Not to mention all the national media appearances. As the only double-digit seed remaining in men’s March Madness, Princeton has heard from everyone from ESPN to CNN to prominent national sports radio shows.
Henderson, his cropped curly hair slightly graying, shakes his head slowly. The Tigers were a team, a little over a month ago, that couldn’t beat Dartmouth, an annual Ivy League also-ran. A week after that loss, Princeton blew an 19-point second-half lead to Ivy rival Yale at home. But since that low point, the Tigers have been on an all-time roll, winning four straight Ivy League games to reach the NCAA tournament, shocking No. 2 Arizona in the first round on March 16, and thoroughly outclassing No. 7 Missouri, in the second round, to set up tonight’s Sweet 16 clash against No. 6 Creighton, in Louisville, for a potential trip to the Elite 8.
To Henderson, the story doesn’t feel real. “Nobody’s going to take this away, right?” he says, staring straight ahead. “We’re still in this, right?”
They sure are. A Final Four, improbably, is now in reach for Princeton, which hasn’t gotten that far in the NCAA tournament since basketball Hall of Famer Bill Bradley led the Tigers to the men’s national semifinal in 1965. Henderson, a former Princeton player whose leap into the air, arms raised, after the Tigers defeated defending champion UCLA back in 1996, became the subject of an iconic photo that defined Cinderella upsets for a generation, is now helping create new lore for the school.
All season long Henderson, who took over as head coach in 2011, has honored the legacy of his former coach and mentor, Hall of Famer Pete Carril, who died last summer. The Tigers wear bow-tie patches on their jerseys, as a nod to Carril, whose patient, precise offense system—which emphasizes three-pointers and layups—still influences basketball today. Henderson, however, largely scrapped Carril’s playbook, playing a faster offensive pace, recruiting more physical defenders and rebounders who can bang with some of the biggest teams in the country, and making the program all his own.
Full disclosure: I traveled to Princeton and then to Louisville this week as a journalist, but also as a former member of the team and a longtime friend of Henderson. We played together at Princeton in the 1990s—he was a star, I was a deep reserve, and we have remained close since. In fact, I was a member of the selection committee—convened by former Princeton athletic director Gary Walters—that hired Henderson as Princeton coach in 2011. So, I am not unbiased when it comes to this team.
It is thanks to this connection that I have had a front-row seat as a reporter embedded with the Tigers, to share the inside story of Princeton basketball’s quest to shake up sports, again, this weekend, and continue its dream run, all the way to Houston and the Final Four.
Tuesday, March 21, 4:15 p.m., Princeton, N.J.
On this clear afternoon, the walk to Jadwin Gymnasium, the multiuse, spaceship-looking facility off Lake Carnegie in which the Sweet 16-bound Princeton Tigers play their basketball games, feels like business as usual. Members of the women’s soccer team are stretching on a practice field. A handful of students bike past the Jadwin entrance. Three days before the Sweet 16, any visitor can walk pretty unbothered to the side of the court where practice is taking place.
It’s difficult to picture a similar stroll into the sacred confines of, say, Cameron Indoor Stadium at Duke University or the Dean Dome at North Carolina or Allen Fieldhouse at the University of Kansas. At those schools, basketball teams operate in their own well-resourced bubbles. None of those schools, however, are playing in the Sweet 16.
But Princeton is. And on the practice court, Henderson is putting his team through drills designed to limit Creighton’s scoring on fast breaks. “When we get to Louisville, that place belongs to us,” says Henderson. “That’s how you go about your business.”
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Matt Allocco, the team’s vocal leader who universally known as “Mush”—as in Mush Mouth, someone who’s always talking—raises the intensity. “Just get in your f–cking matchup,” he shouts at a teammate.
One key cog in stopping 7’1” Creighton center Ryan Kalkbrenner, the team’s leading scorer who shoots an incredible 71% from the field, is Zach Martini, the 6’7”, 235-lb. junior reserve forward from Warren, N.J., known as “Ox.” Out in Sacramento, during the first round of the tournament, Martini sat in the stands watching Utah State and Missouri prior to Princeton’s game. “My leg was shaking uncontrollably,” says Martini. “I’m like, sh-t, dude, settle down.” Once he checked into the game against Arizona and started knocking bodies, however, he felt a sense of calm.
Kalkbrenner offers a whole new challenge. But it’s one for which he feels prepared. “I pride myself on being undersized,” says Martini. “It’s motivated me so much. No lobs, no angles, no seals. We’ve been saying that all year. That’s not going to change Friday.”
While Ox is doing his dirty work, Henderson is imploring freshman guard Xavian Lee, who Henderson believes will become a special player but who has played few minutes in the NCAA tournament games, to speak up on defense. “No one can hear you!” he shouts at him. “Use your outside voice!”
Henderson is on him all practice long about speaking up. “It gets annoying,” Lee says afterward. “But I know he’s right.”
Tuesday, March 21, 6:30 p.m., Princeton, N.J.
After the end of the practice session, Princeton’s best player, 6’8” senior Tosan Evbuomwan, sits against a stanchion. A national audience is now discovering Evbuomwan’s singular skill set: his footwork, dribbling, and passing abilities that have captured the attention of NBA scouts. Growing up in Great Britain, where college basketball is largely an afterthought, Evbuomwan never filled out an NCAA tournament bracket. He still hasn’t. And that may have helped Princeton’s cause. “After the Arizona game, I didn’t feel the urge to jump up and down and dance all night,” says Evbuomwan. “Because I didn’t grow up here with March Madness, maybe I don’t appreciate how big of a deal this is. But secondly, I generally felt like we weren’t done. I felt like we were supposed to be there and we did what we were supposed to do.”
His senior thesis is due in mid-April. Evbuomwan’s project is on how diversity in executive management in the NBA affects team performance. He has the diversity data but still has to run the regressions. That can come, however, after Princeton’s run is done.
Evbuomwan and his teammates are still getting used to all the adulation from strangers. “There’s this guy in my hallway, I see him every now and then in the bathroom, but we haven’t exchanged many words all year,” says Evbuomwan. “This morning, I saw him in the bathroom and he’s like, ‘Really great job, Tosan, I’m driving down to Louisville to support you.’ That’s a small snapshot of the stuff that’s gone on.”
Tuesday, March 21, 8 p.m., Princeton, N.J.
It’s Taco Tuesday at the Henderson house. Afterward, Henderson is treated to a concert: his son Theo, 10, plays him “Eye of the Tiger” on the trumpet and daughter Pippa, 7, plays “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” on the violin.
Henderson grew up in Vincennes, Ind., the son of an electrical contractor and stay-at-home mom. He excelled at pretty much everything. Henderson won the Johnny Woodcrafter award at a woodcraft camp when he was 13. He became a three-sport athlete at Culver Military Academy, was a good enough baseball player to be drafted by the New York Yankees, in the 29th round of the 1994 MLB draft, but attended Princeton to play basketball.
While Henderson was a junior at Princeton, his father died of a heart attack, at 52. The tragedy occurred during the basketball season, and Henderson had to miss a nationally televised game against North Carolina. “I became closed off,” Henderson says when we sit down to talk. “I was like, well, I’m going to put my head down, and I’m going to work like a werewolf. And that’s what I did for years.”
He spent a decade as an assistant coach at Northwestern before getting the Princeton job. He studied the strategies of physical Big Ten teams like Michigan State and Wisconsin, so when he arrived in New Jersey, he was determined to veer away from Carril’s playbook. Henderson has always been an intense leader, but his sense of calm has been apparent during this March Madness run. He credits meditation, which he started doing in December—twice a day, even in some far corner of Jadwin Gym if he has to—with contributing to the smile he cracked as Princeton pulled away from Missouri. “It’s changed my life,” he says.
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“It hasn’t always been easy for him, because he’s the type of coach that, if it doesn’t go well, he puts it all on himself,” says close friend Jesse Marsch, the former coach of Leeds United in the English Premier League. “He really internalizes and puts full responsibility on his own shoulders, which I think is what a leader should be about. And so that part is great. But, you know, he’s had to also kind of learn and teach himself to accept failure sometime, and learn from it. It’s part of the way he’s been able to help this team achieve their potential.”
Henderson has sought out mentors inside and outside the basketball world, and developed a connection with Steve Kerr, the coach of the defending NBA champion Golden State Warriors, after Henderson’s wife, Ashley, encouraged him to introduce himself to Kerr at the 2017 U.S. Open tennis tournament. “Mitch is salt of the earth,” Kerr tells TIME. “He’s a really humble guy, and I enjoy being around him.” After Princeton beat Kerr’s alma mater, Arizona, last week, he sent Henderson a text message: “Bastard!!!!!”
A few years ago, Henderson dug out the thesis that Kerr’s father, Malcolm, wrote as a Princeton senior back in 1953: “Turkey and the Eastern Question of World War II.” He presented Kerr with a bound copy of his father’s work after a Brooklyn Nets game. Malcolm Kerr was assassinated in 1984, while serving as the president of the American University of Beirut. Overwhelmed with gratitude, Kerr bowed his head, teared up, and hugged Henderson.
Wednesday, March 22, 9 a.m., Princeton, N.J.
Packed for the charter flight to Louisville later that afternoon, Henderson is driving his Chevy truck to Jadwin Gym, outlining the principles that he and Evbuomwan settled on together to drive this team. “Focus on the details/discipline/lightheartedness/joy.”
A pre-practice war-room session, however, isn’t so heavy on the joy. Henderson and his staff are watching film on Creighton’s sets. “We have to practice today like we play,” says Henderson, who wasn’t satisfied with the energy at yesterday’s session. “They’re too good. They’re too well-coached. They’re too oiled.”
For today’s practice sessions, he implores an assistant coach to correct a small error he had made scouting a Creighton play in yesterday’s practice. “Tell them, ‘I messed this up.’” And Henderson is still bothered by the lack of vocal communication on defense. “Early Talk – Loud Today,” he writes on a white board. He again points to Lee. “Get rid of the embarrassment,” Henderson says. “F-cking talk.” Henderson decides he’ll have a one-on-one sit-down with Lee before the team’s morning video session and practice, to remind him of his belief that Lee can be one of the top guards in the country, but to try to correct what the coaching staff perceives as a lack of focus.
Wednesday, March 22, 10:45 a.m., Princeton N.J.
With the team filed into cushioned seats at Jadwin for a film session reviewing Creighton’s offensive strategies, Henderson runs down the itinerary for the day. The team is receiving a public sendoff before leaving on the team bus around 1 p.m. “You’ll land in Louisville, Kentucky, and you’re going to the Hyatt Regency and it’s going to be amazing,” says Henderson.
But first, the team needs a better practice performance. “Do not worry about distractions,” says Henderson. “Lock in. It’s not that hard. But the details matter so much. The team that you’re playing is good, talented, and they have what you have. They have continuity and they’re together. It will take a very special version of you to win.”
He reminds them of the joy. “Now after practice, sign yourself up for the best time of your life,” says Henderson. He asked the players if they’ve signed up on Opendorse, the Name, Imagine and Likeness (NIL) platform that enables players to cash in on newfound fame. “Anyone got cash coming in?” Henderson asks. The players laugh sheepishly. Not really. Though that could certainly change if Princeton wins two more and is playing in Houston at next week’s Final Four.
Wednesday, March 22, 11:15 a.m., Princeton, N.J.
The Tigers take the practice floor. “I don’t think we can win the game today,” Henderson says as the team huddles at half court. “But we can lose it.” Meaning, a bad practice today, two days before the Sweet 16 matchup, could be disastrous.
Henderson is bringing his random bursts of energy to today’s session. “Make shots! Make shots!” he says. He appreciates that his players like making fun of him. Starting power forward Keeshawn Kellman spreads his hands out, and goes “don’t use ’em all, fellas”—something Henderson is fond of yelling when players dunk in practice, as if they won’t have any slams left for the game. “He’ll talk slowly, then start to talk fast,” says Kellman. “The start of his sentences and end of his sentences don’t correlate sometimes. He makes a good point. But how did he get there?”
Wednesday, March 22, 1 p.m., Princeton, N.J.,
Hundreds of students and fans gather near the team’s bus to see the players off. “Sweet 16! Sweet 16!” people chant, dressed in orange. Band members play the Princeton fight song on their kazoos. “It’s sinking in,” Henderson says as he saunters over to the crowd, holding his travel bag. One fan is holding a Henderson Fathead.
Princeton athletics has enjoyed plenty of success over the years. But this scene is one of the rare moments in which Tiger sports feel “big time.” The national attention that comes along with a Sweet 16 run will do that to a school. “I’m not going to lie,” says Andrew Guo, a sophomore molecular-biology major from upstate New York. “I never would have expected this in a million years.”
“Holy sh-t, this is a lot of people,” says Lee, who’s about to load his bag onto the bus. “More than we have at our games.”
Wednesday, Match 22, 1:30 p.m., I-95, en route to Philadelphia International Airport
On the bus ride to Philadelphia for the charter to Louisville, Evbuomwan, from his athlete alpha position at the back of the bus, leads a debate on the power of sports superstitions. “If I have a lucky hat, and I somehow lose it, what, I’m supposed to then play bad?” says Evbuomwan. Fellow senior Ryan Langborg has listened to the same three EDM songs prior to the Arizona and Missouri upsets, and Evbuomwan insists that Langborg do so again, acknowledging that he’s being somewhat hypocritical. “I’m not superstitious,” says Evbuomwan. “But I won’t discourage anyone else from following their own superstitions.”
A group of Princeton players, including Evbuomwan, Langborg, Allocco, and reserve center Jacob O’Connell, are part of a pregame crew that watches movies the night before games. (They took in The Benchwarmers before beating Arizona.) Martini has been disinvited, because the night before an Ivy League tournament semifinal game against Penn, he missed movie night because he was watching Twin Peaks. “I was getting right to the part where we find out who killed Laura Palmer,” says Martini. The next day, Martini had his most clutch game of the season, hitting four three-pointers and scoring a career-high 12 points in a Tiger win. Princeton hasn’t lost since.
Two freshmen, starting forward Caden Pierce and reserve guard Jack Scott, look like they’re playing some form of patty-cake. Turns out they are dueling in a game that Scott calls “James Bond,” a rock-paper-scissors-like affair involving three hand motions: loading a gun, shooting a gun, and shielding your chest from a shot. “It’s the kind of thing you see in middle school,” says O’Connell, the senior, with a hint of derision at the freshman.
The Princeton players are a tight bunch that relish teasing one another. Veterans like Evbuomwan, Langborg, Allocco, and others missed the 2020-21 because of the COVID-19 pandemic; the Ivy League was the only Division 1 conference in the country that did not play basketball games. While losing the season hurt, the players did spend that winter improving their skills in practices, and growing closer as a group. In a weird way, the off-year may have contributed to the Sweet 16 berth.
Wednesday, Match 22, 2:40 p.m., Philadelphia International Airport
Once the Princeton traveling party of players, coaches, administrators, cheerleaders, and band members arrive at the airport, everyone has to kill time while waiting for the Allegiant charter— which is running behind by about an hour—to arrive. Henderson leads a game of Simon Says with a group of kids in the parking lot. Pierce and Scott play more James Bond. Band members start juggling. “The nerd factor here is off the charts!” remarks one member of the group.
Not wrong. On the security line to board the plane, Scott mesmerizes his teammates by claiming he can name every NCAA men’s basketball champion since 1965 in under 50 seconds. He begins to rattle off names and years – “UCLA, 1965, Texas Western, 1966 …” until he gets to “2022, Kansas, 2023, Princeton Tigers!” which sets off cheers. He breaks his own record easily, finishing his savant-like task in a cool 44.45 seconds.
The plane is finally set to take off. Blake Peters, the Princeton sophomore who came off the bench to score five key three-pointers in the second half against Missouri—and went viral after screaming “Anything is possible!” in his postgame interview—takes out a textbook titled The New China. NJ.com labeled Peters “the most interesting man in the NCAA tournament,” given in his fluency of Mandarin, desire to become U.S. Secretary of State, and affinity for the Wall Street Journal. Since Henderson’s days working in Princeton’s Firestone Library, he’s remained good friends with his former supervisor, Jerry Williams, now a poet who teaches creative writing at Marymount Manhattan College in New York City. Williams is a big fan of the stout and sculpted Peters.
“His body is almost square,” Williams texted Henderson, summoning his poet’s voice. “Like a wall made of fireplugs.”
Across the aisle, band member Jian Arnold, a junior, pulls out an iPad. He’s about to knock out some astrophysics homework.
Wednesday, March 22, 8 p.m., Louisville, Ky.
For Henderson, this team-only dinner at Vincenzo’s, an upscale Italian restaurant in Louisville, is a well-earned prize following all the media obligations, crash prep for Creighton, and other elements of a torrid whirlwind. The next two days will also feel harried, so here’s maybe one last chance at real relaxation. Over beef tournedos with wild mushroom/cognac sauce, plus chicken parmesan with grilled vegetables and roasted potatoes—and some red wine for the staff—Henderson holds court about his team. He’s particularly proud of Lee’s performance in practice today, and tells him so as Lee heads to the restroom and passes Henderson at the head of the table. “I’m so excited for you,” Henderson tells the freshman. “Good Lord. Thank you.”
Two women approach Henderson at the table, asking if they can take a picture: he encourages both of them to head down to the other end, to take snapshots of the players. “Hello, I’m with the federal government,” a white-haired man tells Henderson, startling the coach for a second. But not to worry: he is a bureaucrat, not a special agent, and is looking to take a photo for his colleague, a Princeton alum.
Allocco—Mush—sits at the other head of the table. He, Langborg, O’Connell, and Evbuomwan are discussing strategy for their upcoming spring soccer game against the Princeton women’s soccer players. Allocco’s teammates are quick to point out that he talked a lot of smack in last year’s game. “Hey,” Allocco says. “I am who I am.”
They are debating movie choices for Thursday night. Perhaps a Jordan Peele horror flick, Get Out or Us? Shawshank Redemption?
Allocco is thumbs-up on his first-ever tiramisu. “It’s pretty sick to go to such a fancy restaurant,” says Evbuomwan, “in sweatpants.”
Wednesday, March 22, 9:30 p.m., Louisville, Ky.
On the post-dinner bus ride back to the hotel, after a round of applause from the other patrons as the team left the restaurant, Henderson is hell-bent on finding a microphone on the vehicle, for impromptu karaoke. When he, the driver, and assistant coach Lawrence Rowley can’t solve the bus’ AV capabilities, he figures his players can make do without a mic. He walks to the back of the bus. “Tosan, get off your phone,” says Henderson. “Come on fellas, what are we doing? Maybe some Bill Withers?” Instead, they settle on “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.” “Darius, get off your phone,” he says to reserve forward Darius Gakwasi.
“I’m pulling up the lyrics,” Gakwasi protests, before belting out the first verse. The team joins in. Not half bad. Now it’s time for check-in and bed.
Thursday, March 23, 10 a.m., Louisville, Ky.
At breakfast the day before the big game, Peters tells the story of how, after the awful Yale loss in February, a boozy fan handed him a note saying something along the lines of “you’ll get them next time.” Peters tore up the note in front of the guy, a human reaction: who wants to hear cliches right after your team blows an 18-point lead? Scott takes the other side. “You easily could have just put the note in your pocket,” he tells Peters. After a little back-and-forth, the table moves on and starts quizzing each other on constitutional amendments.
After breakfast, Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) FaceTimes the team. He tells the players they are dominating the discussion in Washington, D.C., and that no senator in the nation’s capital is prouder. “You are a band of brothers that are going to inspire the whole country,” Booker says. (New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy stopped by Jadwin Gym earlier in the week to wish the team luck.)
Henderson wants to devote most of the 90-minute early-afternoon practice session at the KFC Yum! Center to shooting. So they walked through Creighton’s plays with the scout team in an adjacent ballroom. “Hey, we got more space,” Henderson says. “We’re in the Sweet 16.”
A staffer makes a half-court line, and foul line, out of tape so Princeton can approximate defensive spacing in the ballroom. Allocco wears a Batman T-shirt. Kellman dons a shirt featuring OutKast – he’s not really a fan of the hip-hop duo, but just likes the getup. Henderson keeps harping on defensive noise. “We have the best fan base,” he says. “Everybody loves you guys. We have to be loud, loud, loud.”
In fact, he summoned some sarcastic applause for Evbuomwan. “Hey everyone, for the first time in four years, Tosan has talked during a walkthrough,” Henderson says. Evbuomwan smiles sheepishly.
The team huddles one more time in the ballroom before busing over to the KFC Yum! Center to face national media. “Have fun, be personable,” says Henderson. “Enjoy what you’re about to do.”
Thursday, March 23, 6:30 p.m., Louisville, Ky.
After the media session and practice at the arena, the players have a few hours to themselves to rest before the team dinner at the hotel. Over a chicken parmesan and lasagna in the ballroom, most players are competing in a trivia contest on an app called Sporcle. Langborg asks if a pigeon can be a bird flying on the countryside. It’s certainly possible, I volunteer. It appears I’ve done my duty as Sporcle referee.
I mention to Evbuomwan that his team is really dialing up the dork factor. He seems pleased with that assessment. “We embrace it,” he says. Still, he expects to win more than quizzes in Louisville. “We’ve been counted out twice,” Evbuomwan says over the Sporcle cheering. “I hope people aren’t quick to count us out a third time.”
The movie crew settles on Get Out for the pregame flick. Martini, showing his confidence, watches it.
“They know they can do it,” says Henderson. “I don’t know if there’s a happier group. They’re just sitting here talking about how much fun they’re having, how much fun it is to be around one another. You don’t have the feeling that I have, that we have, very often. It feels very good.”
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