Strittmatter playing bigger role for PU men

Versatile freshman ready for start of Ivy year

By: Justin Feil
   Michael Strittmatter has been told several times that the Ivy League season will be harder than the regular season has been.
   It’s harder to believe it getting more difficult than the way the Princeton University men’s and Strittmatter’s seasons began.
   The freshman center/forward didn’t appear in a game until Dec. 17 when he played 20 minutes in the Tigers’ loss at Wake Forest. Since then, he’s seen his playing time steadily increase. He made his first career start against Rutgers on New Year’s Eve and his second career start came in a 52-41 loss to Rice on Thursday. It’s quite a change from his introduction to Princeton basketball.
   "I was on the scout team," Strittmatter said. "I was running the other team’s offense in practice. I was trying to do as best I could at that so it would help our team play better in games. I don’t think you could get a lot lower than I was."
   The same could be said of the Tigers, who have a 2-10 record after the loss to Rice. The start of the Ivy season gives them a chance to erase that mark. Princeton will host Columbia 7:30 p.m. Friday and Cornell 9 p.m. Saturday at Jadwin Gym.
   "Just for us, in the spot where we are, it’s a new season for us," said PU head coach Joe Scott. "Everybody is 0-0 (in the Ivies). We’re about as healthy as we can be. Scotty (Greenman) is back. He’s played two games which should help us. Luke (Owings) seems like he’s doing a little better. He’s played better the last two games.
   "It’s not different except you’re 0-0 and maybe our guys have a better sense of what we have to do. We’ve played better over the last two games. Now, can we play better a third game in a row? Then it’s part of a new season."
   Strittmatter is another change that has helped the Tigers in their last two games. Those starts show he’s come a long way in a short time in the Princeton program.
   "To begin with, I showed up not being very well prepared," Strittmatter said. "Coach Scott kept telling me how hard it was. I don’t think I realized how hard it was.
   "The things I had to work on most were ball-handling and a two-handed chest pass. It wouldn’t seem that hard, but to throw a good hard pass to the chest every time takes work. I showed up to practice real early for a good three weeks. Coach (Mike) Brennan was nice enough to work with me. That helped me not worry about those things and concentrate on doing everything else right."
   Strittmatter believes that the Tigers are doing things better with each game. Princeton pulled within five points of Rice on Strittmatter’s three-pointer with five minutes remaining in the game, but then did not score again until just 36 seconds remained in the game.
   "I really believe we’re getting better," Strittmatter said. "It comes down to we have to hit more shots."
   Strittmatter can help in that department. At 6-foot-8, he’s tall enough to play inside but he also has the ability to step outside and hit the three-pointer. Having those abilities was a reason that he committed to come to Princeton even before his senior year began at Brophy College Prep in Arizona.
   "I’m not overly quick or fast and I’m not a good jumper," Strittmatter said. "The things I’m decent at are catching and shooting, and I’m good at passing. Those are two things in the Princeton offense that the center needs to do. That’s what opens up the offense and allows for backdoors. If the opposing center has to come out and guard me (Princeton gets backdoors). Passing, it took me a while to throw a good backdoor pass. I don’t know how many defenders’ feet I’ve hit and how many I’ve thrown away in practice."
   Added Scott: "He can make a shot. He can throw a pass. He’s a good dribbler. Stamina and strength are his issues, as they are with all freshmen. He has a chance to be a good basketball player. Something I hope he can handle is we’re giving him a lot of responsibility. I hope he can handle it. And can (Harrison) Schaen give us a good 15 to 20 minutes? And can Luke help us in there? That will help Mike so he can be making solid contributions. That’s why upperclassmen are so important."
   With such a young team, Scott worries about how the less experienced players will hold up through the Ivy season. But he has some flexibility in players like Strittmatter and Schaen, both who played the center spot against Rice. Strittmatter began his Tigers career strictly as a forward, but as he was inserted into the mix, he played center more frequently.
   "If that can help the team, I have no problem doing it," said Strittmatter, whose scoring output has gone up each of the last three games. "It doesn’t matter to me what spot I play. I do feel I’m getting better. It comes down to seeing, not just the other team but also your own teammates and knowing who’s who. If you are a center, knowing where you are. We’re getting better at it and getting better as a team. I feel like it’s right there. We’re real close.
   "Harrison is obviously is the best athlete on the team. Switching us off and on, maybe we can make the other team’s center’s head swirl. Whatever can help the team. If it’s Harrison jumping over somebody or if it’s me trying to shoot some threes."
   Like most Princeton freshmen, it took Strittmatter a while to get comfortable with the offense. He’s still working to eliminate mistakes, as is a young Tigers team. After starting the last two games, he has more of a stake in the team’s outcome.
   "I do feel a little more pressure," he said. "The entire team is counting on me. I have a bigger effect on the team. If I do something bad, I’m letting down my teammates. I’m trying as hard as I can to not let down teammates."
   Strittmatter hasn’t let down anyone yet. He’s actually impressed the Tigers’ coaching staff, which is how he earned his spot on the court.
   "We learned Mike wants to be good," Scott said. "He shows up early for practice every day. And he’s got good skills. He’s sort of learned as time goes on, he’s putting those things together. His skills with his desire to be good have helped him.
   "He’s played well when he’s been out there. I hope he can sustain it. That’s a battle for the freshmen. We have that with sophomores too, especially those that didn’t play. But with Scotty back, it helps sustain them a little longer. It’s still going to be really hard in the Ivy season."
   Scott is hoping that Strittmatter and his young Tiger teammates can pick up quickly the back-to-back format of Ivy games. They’ll get their first taste of it with this weekend’s doubleheader.
   "Columbia, they play extremely hard," Scott said. "They’re aggressive. They shove you and push you. We have to execute our offense against that sort of pressure and match that hardness and toughness.
   "Cornell is a little older. They have some experienced guys. We have to take them out of what they do. They’ve gotten pretty good at what they do. For us, it’s continuing to get better at what we do. Can we develop that consistency, and execute our half-court offense better and defensively take them out of what they do? That’s what we hope."
   Columbia was among the schools that Strittmatter considered attending out of Phoenix. But he’s thrilled to be suiting up and, all of a sudden, starting for the Princeton men’s basketball team as it opens Ivy play. He’s hoping that he has the ability to help the Tigers improve and win the league.
   "It’s the best situation for me," he said. "The Princeton offense highlights the things I do best and hides the things I don’t do as well. I really like it here."