Anatomy of An Offense
A scattering of thoughts on Princeton, Pete Carril and basketball’s most deliberate system.
In all likelihood, Princeton University will never win the men’s NCAA National Championship. Not next season, not in 10 years, and probably not in the 21st Century. Were the Tigers to somehow reach the Sweet 16, even, it would be one of the greatest basketball accomplishments in school history.
If this sounds unduly harsh, bear in mind there are many demographic, cultural and economic factors at play, the foremost being that Princeton is a member of the Ivy League and therefore does not offer basketball scholarships to promising young players. Without a scholarship, Princeton costs about $50,000 per year (if you factor in room and board), and that number keeps going up. It’s also very hard to qualify academically for Princeton, as you may have heard.
Hindered by its own traditions and the unbending standards of the Ivy League, Princeton cannot recruit the country’s best athletes, or even the best athletes in the New York metro area. The historic New Jersey university will never steal a Kemba Walker or Fab Melo; those guys go to UConn or Syracuse, not Princeton. And whenever the Tigers play their way into the NCAA Tournament—a very difficult task in the one-bid Ivy—they are invariably the underdog. A first-round exit is usually in the offing.
Still, against the odds, Princeton’s basketball team has basked in the limelight of several memorable moments. In March 1989, the underdog Tigers, coached by the legendary Carril, nearly beat top-seeded Georgetown in the first round of the NCAA’s. The Tigers ran their trademark offense to perfection, cutting and moving and shooting open threes. In the end, Georgetown’s Alonzo Mourning blocked a final shot from Princeton’s Bob Scrabis, and the Hoyas held on for a 50-49 victory. Had No. 16 Princeton prevailed, it would have been “the greatest upset in the history of the Tournament,” according to the excitable Dick Vitale.
More first-round heartbreakers followed: 68-64 against Arkansas in 1990; 50-48 versus Villanova in ’91. Close games, narrow defeats, Carril’s craftiness and meticulous preparation on full display.
The ’96 Tigers finally broke through. In a first-round NCAA Tournament game in Indianapolis, Princeton outfoxed mighty UCLA (the defending National Champion) and won by a single basket, 43-41. The upset reverberated across America: a 14-seed had beaten a 3, and they had done it with stingy defense and teamwork.
The decisive play of the game was classic Princeton. With the score tied at 41, about 10 seconds left in the ballgame, Tigers center Steve Goodrich caught a pass on the right wing, between the elbow and the three-point arc. He held the ball high above his head, pivoting, waiting for the play to develop. Meanwhile young Gabe Lewullis, just a freshman, cut hard along the right baseline, stopped near the hoop, then retreated a few steps to his original position on the low wing. The UCLA defender wasn’t fooled and covered it well.
But then Lewullis did something unexpected, though very Princetonian: He instantly changed direction and again cut backdoor, the exact same move, slipping behind his defender and sprinting for the rim. This time Goodrich hit him with a perfect bounce pass and Lewullis laid the ball into the basket. The Tigers had one last chance, a desperation three-pointer that went long. The buzzer sounded. Princeton rejoiced, UCLA despaired. Unbelievably, the Tigers had pulled it off.
Next morning the local newspaper, The Daily Princetonian, ran a huge headline across the top of the front page: “David 43, Goliath 41.” The game was covered from every angle, and for good reason—it was the kind of program-defining win that people would remember for a long, long time. Never mind that Princeton was blitzed by Mississippi State in the second round two days later; the UCLA game was the one that mattered.
The remarkable Pete Carril, a man of great passion and charisma, unfailingly honest, ever quotable (the sportswriters loved him), was the head coach at Princeton University for 29 years, from 1967 to 1996. He essentially invented the Princeton Offense, won 525 games, 13 Ivy League championships and the 1975 NIT. His teams qualified for the NCAA Tournament 11 times.
Grandfatherly and somewhat eccentric, beloved at Princeton, he preferred sweaters and bowties and big owl-eyed glasses; on the sidelines he was demonstrative and theatrical, a whirlwind of energy and bluster. His stringy white hair was always frazzled, his appearance unkempt. Through all the twists and turns of a 40-minute ballgame, Carril wore every emotion—joy, rage, exasperation—like a mask. When things weren’t going Princeton’s way, his wrinkled face would twist into expressions of pure agony. Surely no one ever doubted, watching Carril coach a game, that basketball was his heart and soul.
Under Carril’s long watch, the Princeton program grew into a perennial Ivy League powerhouse. It became a standard-bearer for athletic and academic excellence. The Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame enshrined Carril in 1997, one year after his final season at Princeton, one year after the Tigers beat UCLA on that magical day in Indianapolis.