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PRINCETON — Mitch Henderson remembers his first meeting with Caden Pierce.
Princeton was recruiting him out of Glenbard West High in suburban Chicago and they went to lunch across from the high school.
“He showed up dressed like it was you are on spring break day,” Henderson said. “I was like, ‘I don’t know about this guy.’”
It’s an anecdote that the veteran coach can look back on and laugh at because now he couldn’t be more sure about the Ivy League Rookie of the Year.
The Tigers wouldn’t be in the NCAA Tournament for the 26th time without him.
“We’re so lucky,” Henderson said. “He’s a Big Ten, Big XII, high-major player in every sense of the word. From the minute he stepped on campus, he was good at the things that were so hard for freshmen.”
Pierce is in rarefied air at Princeton as a freshman who has started since Day 1. Henderson joked that he realized it when he would be grouped with Tosan Evbuomwan, Ryan Langborg and Matt Allocco during preseason practice.
The 6-foot-6, 210-pound forward is averaging 8.3 points and a team-best 7.1 rebounds in 29 games, but even those numbers don’t tell the whole story. All seven of his double-doubles have come since Jan. 7 when it was clear he was becoming more comfortable with his role. In 16 Ivy games, which includes the wins in the tournament semifinal and final, he’s posted 10.1 points and 8.4 rebounds.
“He’s a winner,” Allocco said. “That’s one word to describe him. People say he’s young, he’s a freshman, but forget all that. He’s a winner. That’s what he is.”
This uncanny ability to find the ball — Pierce rescued possession with massive offensive rebounds at the end of both Ivy Tournament games — has to come from somewhere.
Pierce credited his “ups” to his mother, Stephanie, a former volleyball player at Northwestern, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a more athletic family. His father, Greg, played football at Northwester and his older brothers — Justin (basketball at William & Mary and North Carolina) and Alec (football at Cincinnati and now Indianapolis Colts) — are professional athletes.
“I’d be lying if I said I didn’t take a few punches back in the day from my brothers playing basketball in the driveway,” Pierce said. “That constant competitive spirit in my house, they really shaped me into who I am today.”
Henderson said he’s never had a better rebounder than Pierce in his time as coach.
“He rebounds with two hands with aggression,” Henderson said. “He’s so humble about it and I think it rubs off. The kid is churning out double-doubles like it’s easy.”
The ability to rebound is going to be tested in the NCAA Tournament. Arizona’s two leading scorers are 6-foot-11 and 7-foot, respectively, and both average over eight boards per game.
“Whenever I step on the floor, I might as well give whatever I have out there,” Pierce said. “If that’s rebounds, defense, whatever it is, I’m going to play as hard as I can every time down the floor.”
Pierce is part of a freshmen collective that has come up with key moments throughout the season. Xaivian Lee and the injured Deven Austin have also made significant contributions, which isn’t a normal thing at a place like Princeton that relies on experienced upperclassmen.
Pierce and Lee shared a hugged after the Tigers closed out the Ivy League championship.
“It’s all new for us,” Pierce said. “We were just proud of each other in that moment. We’re hoping to have more of those in the future.”
A bright future at that.
“There’s something in the air in that family,” Henderson said. “They think it’s normal, but it’s unbelievable.”
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