A reporter mentioned to Princeton star forward Bella Alarie that perhaps, following a win over Seton Hall, the Tigers might get ranked in the top 25. She smiled wide, and said agreeably, “Right? What’s up with that?”
The Tigers could be forgiven for thinking they have a legitimate claim on a ranking, though their goals are fare bigger and more concrete than that.
Princeton is off to a 4-0 start, with road wins over George Washington of the Atlantic 10 and Seton Hall of the Big East, not to mention a strong Florida Gulf Coast University squad that reached the NCAA Tournament last season.
And the latter two wins came with limited production from Bella Alarie, the team’s transcendent star, who is managing a minor knee injury. The quality wins will only help Princeton avoid the pitfalls of a typical Ivy League team – a lower-ranked overall schedule that turns the Ivy League conference tournament, held at Harvard this season, into a lone NCAA bid for the league.
“I think that with the personnel we have and the team we have, we’re in every single game,” Princeton coach Carla Berube said of her team after the Seton Hall game. “That’s how we’re going to step on the floor, and every game is winnable in our minds. And we know that, we want to put together a full season of great basketball so that of course, we want to win the Ivy League championship, but we put ourselves in that position where we could get an at-large.”
That starts with Alarie, a 6’5 inside/outside threat who will be one of the first players taken in next year’s WNBA Draft, but there’s plenty of talent alongside here. Carlie Littlefield, a 5’9 junior point guard, has taken her game to another level so far this season. With added strength, she’s finishing at the rim far more efficiently, hitting 59.5 percent of her twos after checking in at 42.3 percent from two last season. And her assist percentage has nearly doubled, to 35.2 percent so far this season, after posting an 18.6 mark last season.
“She’s tough as nails,” Berube said of Littlefield. “When you need big buckets, when you need big stops, when you need just for us to calm down and have great leadership on the court, she’s there.”
The depth of the team should help all season as well. They shoot well from beyond the arc, 38 percent as a team, and eight different Tigers have made threes already.
An experienced, deep backcourt led by an all-world star? That makes for the kind of recipe that usually produces deep NCAA Tournament runs.
Still, the Tigers could use some additional non-conference wins, beginning Wednesday night in Iowa against the Hawkeyes. December matchups at home against Penn State, at Missouri and at St. Louis could also boost the team’s resume.
What’s most remarkable is that, despite coaching turnover – Courtney Banghart, the longtime Princeton coach, was hired by North Carolina – the Tigers aren’t missing a beat under Berube.
“Obviously it’s a hectic transition when you have a whole new coaching staff,” Alarie said, who credited Berube and the staff for quickly getting the team up to speed. “But what really matters now is Princeton basketball and achieving all the goals we’ve set for ourselves.”