Tuesday October 3, 2023

Why Princeton Men’s Basketball Is An Unorthodox Cinderella

  • Princeton has been dubbed one of this year’s “Cinderellas.”
  • But the impact on the program and school differs from other Cinderellas — like FDU or Saint Peter’s.
The Princeton Tigers celebrate after defeating the Missouri Tigers.
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The Princeton men’s basketball team hasn’t made it to the Sweet 16 since 1967. But the 15-seed Tigers — who will face off against 6-seed Creighton at the South Regional in Louisville on Friday night — are an unorthodox Cinderella.

Most Cinderellas like Fairleigh Dickinson or Saint Peter’s expect a major uptick in applicants because March Madness provides their largest platform. But Princeton is well-known enough that this run may not have that effect. Princeton, with a 4% acceptance rate, hardly needs more applicants. 

But it may see an improvement in two areas: recruiting and fundraising.

Competing for Athletes

Ivy League schools can sometimes be at a recruiting disadvantage because they don’t offer athletic scholarships (though they provide financial aid). But this Sweet 16 run could help Princeton compete with programs like Duke and Stanford, which draw recruits interested in elite academics, UPenn sports economist Karen Weaver told Front Office Sports. 

Men’s basketball coach Mitch Henderson — a Princeton basketball alum — explained that the department has plenty of history, pride, and support.

During a press conference on Thursday, he explained that famous NBA players who played at Princeton in the ‘60s and ‘70s aren’t strangers to today’s team. 

“I hear from them a lot, and they come around a lot,” he said. “So we might be considered nationally as a mid-major, but our school thinks very highly of its basketball history, and we think that this team reflects that history very well.”

Former Princeton star and National Association of Basketball Coaches executive director Craig Robinson has produced a documentary on Princeton’s famous former coach, Pete Carril, which will air on CBS this weekend.

A Draw for Students

Non-athletes will also get to see the extent of the Princeton fanbase. 

The school rallied around the team this week, Henderson told reporters. About 1,000 people showed up to see the team bus off — including a chemistry professor Henderson runs into often. “As we get on the bus, he’s like, ‘COME ON!’” Henderson said.

It’s not just on campus. “Princeton alums will travel just like University of Michigan alums will travel,” Robinson told FOS. 

Catching The Eye of Donors

The school may not seem like it needs extra funding — after all, it boasts a $36 billion endowment. 

But most of that may not be eligible for athletics,  Weaver explained. A portion of a school’s endowment is often earmarked for a specific university area. The university usually leaves the remaining money in the bank, as a large endowment helps with debt service and bond rating. 

A look at recent numbers: In 2021-22, Princeton spent $1.8 million on its men’s basketball program, not including coaching salaries, per Department of Education data. That’s the lowest of any school in the men’s Sweet 16.

But a strong showing in this year’s tournament could help coaches fundraise, which Weaver said is a top priority for Ivy League coaches. Wealthy alums aren’t always as interested in contributing to sports as they are in the academic side of the university. 

The surprising run could convince them. “How could it hurt?” she said.

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