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Brett MacConnell, Princeton Men's Basketball Assistant Coach

Zach Gelb Show / Zach Gelb
The Truth Network Radio
March 22, 2023 9:28 pm

Brett MacConnell, Princeton Men's Basketball Assistant Coach

Zach Gelb Show / Zach Gelb

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March 22, 2023 9:28 pm

Brett MacConnell joined Zach to discuss if reality has sunk in that Princeton is in the Sweet 16 and how the Tigers matchup against Creighton. 

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And now joining us is the associate head coach for the Princeton Tigers, and a pal of mine back from my days when I was doing local radio in the Princeton area, and that of course is Brett McConnell. Coach, really happy for you guys. Congratulations, how you been? Good to catch up.

Zach, Zach, doing great man. We miss you in Princeton, but really awesome to be on with you tonight, and we have a lot to talk about. We're all very excited with the run we're on and hoping to keep it rolling. Well don't give me the coach's answer here that you guys are all focused on Creighton. I want you to just kind of recap the emotions and the run that you guys did go on to get to this point of beating the Sweet 16 on Friday night. Yeah, yeah.

Well first Zach, let me give you a little bit of perspective, okay? So we just had dinner. We went a little late. Our flight was a little delayed. We just had dinner at Vincenzo's, like a really big time spot here in Louisville. I'm sitting now on the bus.

I went out to the bus a few minutes before the guy finished. It's all leather bucket seats, and you know, everything has stepped up a little bit, right? Like everything feels like, okay, it's the Sweet 16 now, and we're being treated really good. There's a buzz around campus.

There's a buzz around the guys. It's been incredible. I don't even think we can quite, the perspective on it will be different here in a month or so, but we're riding this wave, man. We're riding this thing out. We're enjoying it.

We're having a blast. Of course, our focus is on Creighton, but there's room and time for us to have some fun with it too, and I think the guys are all soaking that up. When did it feel real? Because I know as a coach and players, you guys are like robots where it's you win and you're on to the next one and it moves so quickly. When did it feel real where you said to yourself, wow, we beat Arizona and then we beat Missouri and now we're gonna play in the Sweet 16? Yeah, well, you know, the second that Arizona game ended, I actually was in the locker room.

I pulled my laptop up and I'm watching Missouri film. It's a really quick turnaround, and that was just what had to be done in that moment, and sitting in the locker room an hour or so before the Missouri game, we're about to give our our little pre-game talk, go through the scout one final time, and I'm in the little offshoot of the coach's locker room, and I think it was Kansas-Arkansas or one of the other NCAA tournament games is up on the screen, and I'm not really paying much attention. I'm trying to get ready for Missouri, and of course, I just look up for a second and on the bottom line starts to scroll like upcoming games, number seven Missouri versus number 15 Princeton, second round, and I'm like, oh my gosh, like that's us. You look up every once in a while, you get a chance to look up and see where you're at, see what's going on, and then after the Missouri game, to see social media, to see TV, to see SportsCenter, like I mean every single media outlet covering us, talking about us, going to the Sweet Sixteen, and you pinch yourself, you look at the coach next, you're like, this is really happening, like it's been incredible, it's been awesome, and it's still different moments hit me still.

Now, you know, I look up and see something that, you know, 15 Princeton taking on Creighton, like it's really, it's really special. And you guys are a confident team. Now, you're respectful, but I remember talking to you after the Arizona game, and you talked about how you guys matched up well against Missouri. Where does this confidence come from with this team? Because I know you guys are a 15-seater, you guys come out of the Ivy, but it feels like you guys belong here, and your players don't think the moment is going to be too big for them.

No, well, I mean, you know, you gain confidence from these last two games, of course, right? Like, to beat Arizona, to beat Missouri, not much will faze us going forward, but, Zach, we got really good players. We got really good players. Toson Awoma was Ivy League player of the year in 2022.

I think his teammates felt like maybe he was deserving this season of being back to back. He ends up, you know, having a chip on his shoulder and getting conference tournament most outstanding player. Keyshawn Kelman, I mean, could play anywhere. He could be a defensive end in football. He is a big guy. What a specimen. So you have those two guys kind of on the front line.

They match up well with these high major teams. Cade Pierce, freshman, had 16 rebounds last time out. I think he had seven or eight on the offensive end. Zach, I think he's the third leading rebounder in the NCAA tournament right now. It's like Oscar Shibwe is number one, somebody's two, and Cade Pierce is three, a freshman from Chicago, and then Langborg and Alaco in the backcourt, a senior and a junior.

They've seen it all. Peters comes off the bench draining threes. Martini is tough as nails. Davian Lee is a ball handler for us to relieve pressure. I mean, we feel really good about the fact that talent-wise, we're not the prototypical mid-major. We feel like we can stack up with anybody. Our guys are really confident.

We feel battle tested, so we're not going to be phased, I don't think, here by anything coming up. And I thought the Missouri game was more impressive than the Arizona game because it's one thing to get one win and then right, it's the 15 seed. And we saw last year with St. Peters, they run all the way to the Elite Eight, but then people just expect you to stumble the next round. You guys didn't only just beat Missouri. You dominated them, coach.

You ran them off the court. We felt really good about our performance there. And Zach, I'll say this too, because as good as that Missouri performance was, and we feel like we're capable, we felt like, hey, if we get guys playing well at the same time, we feel like we're capable of that when we're at our best. The Arizona win, we did that shooting four of 25. And we've got a really good three-point shooting group. And so to beat a two-seed, usually the recipe for these underdogs to beat a higher-seeded team is to, you know, shoot the lights out, shoot above their head. And we shot four of 25 in that game.

So I think two really, really good performances for us, and we hope to keep that momentum rolling. Brett McConnell, when I looked at the Fairleigh Dickinson win against Purdue, Tobin Anderson did not let Zach Eady breathe on that court in the second half. For you guys up against Arizona, with their bigs, you held them to what, as a team, five points in the final, like eight or nine minutes, and no points in the final 4.45. What was the approach defensively up against Arizona in that first game? Well, you know, credit to our guys. We were really, really, really physical inside. I mentioned Kelman.

I mentioned K. Pierce, Zach Martini off the bench. We're really physical. Those two guys are really big for the Pac-12.

I mean, they're really big, two physical guys inside. We also mixed double teams. We double teamed all year, and we double teamed just about every time when those two guys touched the ball. It was really effective, and we mixed the double team on and off against Missouri. You know, we'll have a game plan for Creighton, but we were really, really good in our double teams. And sorry, Zach, the guys are getting on the bus, and we have a tendency with this team right now, when they get on the bus after a win or a good meal, they tend to get pretty loud and rowdy, and we like them having fun, so apologies if it gets a little louder over here.

No, it sounds good to me. Brett McConnell here with Dusty, assistant coach for Princeton. Princeton going to be playing in the Sweet 16 as a 15 seed Friday night up against Creighton. You talked about some of your youngsters. Blake Peters, though, you talked about the bad shooting against Arizona. He made three big three-point shots, and then he was just unbelievable from three up against Missouri. Take me a little bit through more about Blake Peters because I've been impressed with what he's been able to do off the bench for you guys. Let me tell you, Zach, it is the least surprising thing to everyone in this program that Blake has shot the way he shot the last two games.

I mean, we have the utmost confidence in him. He's had games with four and five threes this season. If he has an open look, everybody on our bench thinks it's going in.

He's an unbelievable shooter. He's been that way since the first day he stepped into our program. He was that way in high school. It's what he does. It's what he does. The moment doesn't faze him. The situation, the time on the clock, he feels like if I'm open, I'm getting it up, and I feel good about it. The coaching staff feels that way. His teammates feel that way, so we hope he can get some more up on Friday, right?

Yeah, absolutely. Take me through the story of Toson. He's from England. You flew out there. How'd you guys discover him, and how'd you get him to come to Princeton? Well, it's a crazy story. His club coach, who also was one of his national team coaches, emailed a bunch of Ivy schools, a bunch of high academic, high major programs that they thought fit him.

Apparently, I was the only one to follow up on the email and go out to see him, but the story gets better because when I got to Northern, I flew into London, drove four or five hours up north in England, and Toson is planned in a really tiny gym that probably had one side of bleachers. You could probably fit 10 fans in there. There's every line you could imagine. Handball, volleyball. I mean, sports that I don't even know existed. Netball on this court.

It's unbelievable what the gym he was planning. Zach, I'm not kidding. They were down 50 at halftime. I think it was 64 to 12, and I still fell in love. Fell in love with the kid. It's funny because he tells a story that I didn't know, but when the game ended, and I'm sitting and talking to him, he said he wasn't paying much attention because he was just waiting for me to say, hey, goodbye.

We'll never see again. That's how bad the team played. Toson's team just had a rough night, and I'm like, hey, when can you come out and visit us? Of course, he came out and visited us. The rest is history, and he's changed our program. He's changed not just this season, but the impact he's had on our program has been massive, so we're thrilled we have him. Did you white lie a little bit to Mitch Henderson and made it out to be since he's in England, and Mitch probably didn't know what was going on that, hey, he was a lot better than whatever the box score said?

You know, it's a good thing I watched some film before I went out and saw him because I had at least a better feel for the type of player he was and what he was capable of, and I think I probably told Mitch, no, it wasn't his best game. So maybe I didn't go all the way in on how bad a performance it was for his team, but everybody's happy with how it worked out, that's for sure. What stands out to you, Brett McConnell, before we let you run the assistant coach from Princeton in the Sweet 16 Friday night up against Creighton, what stands out to you about the Blue Jays? They're a big team. We know they're a good team. They had some adversity early on in the season where they lost six in a row, but they're starting to click on all cylinders. Yeah, I think they were missing Kalkbrenner for that stretch. He's a big guy in the middle, he's 7-1, really talented, skilled, blocked shots, and then they put four shooters around him, and when you put four shooters around a really good player, it presents a lot of challenges.

If we're going to double, what could happen beyond that? If we guard them one-on-one, can we stop them? There's just a lot of questions with shooting like that around a really good big, and they're smart, they're skilled, they're tough, they're really good, Zach. They're really good. I remember when we were hanging out in Princeton, you were telling me each and every year you go to the Final Four. Now, you're still a long ways away from the Final Four, you got to go win two more games, but you're just being a student of a game, and obviously you've coached for a long time and you grew up around basketball.

This just got to be such a thrill, Brett McConnell. We hear you on the bus right now, you guys just got out of dinner. I know you guys feel like you belong, but a lot of it still has to feel surreal, right?

It's 100%, Zach. In my wildest dreams, to be coaching a team in the Sweet 16, man, we're pinching ourselves. It feels like a dream, but we don't want it to stop, and at the same time, we feel like we belong, and we feel like we should be here. So, it's kind of an interesting dynamic and a combination of these two things, but each time we get a win, we're one step closer to the next thing that felt insurmountable and now has become pretty close. Two more, yeah, two more before we let you run, coach.

Let me just ask you this. So, we all know that the Ivy League did not play in the COVID year, then you guys lose in the championship game to Yale. You've had some tough performance up against Yale, you beat them. That win in the Ivy League tournament against Yale, was it just a sense of relief that once you got into the tournament, it was just a giant monkey off your guys' back?

For sure. I mean, the pressure that mid-major teams in one-bid league space in their conference tournament, and for us to play 10 again and have to beat them a week after we clinched the regular season title in the semis, and then play Yale, who's been really tough in the final, those two games are absolute battles. You are scrapping and clawing and fighting so hard to win those two games. So, yeah, without question, you feel like you're playing with house money a little bit when you get to the NCAA tournament. There's less pressure, you've achieved your biggest goal, you've made it to the NCAA tournament, and I think you're seeing that from our guys.

There's a freedom, there's a confidence, there's a looseness to them. As much as they're focused and playing really hard, there's a little less pressure on us right now, and I think we're relishing that opportunity. Last thing I'll ask you, Brett McConnell, this team last got to the NCAA tournament the program back in 2017. You guys were right there with Notre Dame, and you just weren't able to hit a shot at the end.

What did you take from that experience, and how has it helped you this go-around? Yeah, I mean, you know what, Zach? For all the bells and whistles and the bright lights, what I realized in that 2017 Notre Dame game, the second the ball gets thrown up and tipped, it's a basketball game. And we've all been there before, we've all played basketball games, these guys have played against really good teams. So once the game starts, once that ball goes up, we know what we need to do.

And I don't think the moment is too big, I don't think anything else impacts us beyond just trying to win a game. And we've got two down, and now we're on to Creighton and trying to get that next one. Well, enjoy your fancy dinners, enjoy the fancy bus ride, enjoy it with the guys, and hopefully we see you as a head coach soon, but you're doing a kick-ass job as the associate head coach for Princeton's basketball team, and it's been a whole lot of fun to see you guys continue to build and move forward with this great program, so appreciate you doing this. Thanks, Zach. They're waiting for me to finish so they can start singing karaoke back here. Oh, they could have started interrupting you and singing karaoke during the interview. I know, we could have put them on speakerphone, I know, I should have done it. That was great talking to you, Zach. Thanks, man. Planning a wedding is intimidating, but finding the perfect suit shouldn't be. Design your dream suit at Indochino.com and use Code Podcast for 10% off any purchase of $3.99 or more. That's I-N-D-O-C-H-I-N-O dot com Code Podcast.
Whisper: medium.en / 2023-03-22 23:11:52 / 2023-03-22 23:19:11 / 7

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