Learning to love the “new” Princeton Tigers

I didn’t like this Princeton basketball team at first. In fact, I found it infuriating. At the start of the season, these Tigers seemed to affirm my fears that the classic “Princeton System” was dead at Old Nassau.

Growing up less than two miles from Jadwin Gym, I was raised on the pure form of Princeton Basketball. My parents took me to see the Tigers win the NIT at the Garden when I was 10 and I was hooked for life. My Dad taught me to watch the players without the ball and to observe the players’ feet, not their hands. A good pass is not just one that reaches the open man, because the player needs to land the ball in a teammate’s hands in perfect position to shoot.

My friends and I would go see the team practice after school, back when practices were open to the public. There was no better entertainment than to watch Pete Carril berate his players for committing the slightest deviation from perfection. He’d stomp around in baggy sweats, hair tussled, barking in an almost unintelligible baritone that demanded precision, intelligence and focus.

Last fall, the table seemed to be set for the Tigers’ return to glory. The senior-dominated squad conjured memories of 1976, 1983, 1991 and 1998 — respectively the greatest Princeton teams of my childhood, time as an undergraduate at Princeton, and years as an alumnus. Each of those teams was firmly grounded in the basic principles of Pete Carril basketball and each made some noise in the NCAA Tournament.

But then the 2016-17 season started and the disappointment rushed in.  It wasn’t just that the Tigers were losing close games, it was the way that they were losing them that was so troubling.

Through the first six games, the Tigers had turned the ball over 73 times and only managed 66 assists. Against Lehigh, Cal and VCU, the team had a miserable combined assist to turnover ratio of 0.57:1.

Against the Golden Bears, they managed just three assists for the entire game.

Against St. Joseph’s, they missed nine out of 22 free throws. With the game on the line, two Princeton players attempted unassisted, cross-over, step-back jumpers slightly inside the three-point line (both missed). These were moves that might have earned weeks in Pete’s doghouse and a groan and shake of the head from my father.

Who were these imposters in orange and black?

Then the magic returned. The defense tightened considerably. The cutting suddenly seemed much sharper. The passing was crisp like the old days and the team’s shot selection became much more disciplined. What might be called the “Carril character metrics” began to climb: assist-to-turnover ratio, free-throw shooting percentage, assisted shots.

The Tigers had 23 assists against Cal Poly and 21 against Brown.

The team got on the roll that fans had been hoping for since the bitter loss at Virginia Tech in last year’s NIT, eventually ripping off 17 straight wins. The offense is again a thing of beauty, leading the Ivies by a wide margin in assist-to-turnover ratio. The defense is stifling, holding the other seven ancients to less than 42 percent field-goal shooting.

Nationally, Princeton now ranks first in fewest turnovers and second in fewest fouls committed.  The Tigers are in the top 30 teams nationally in 10 different statistical categories.

The regular season culminated in a spirited win against Harvard and a near flawless thrashing of Dartmouth by almost 40 points. Against the Big Green, the Tigers posted 16 assists and only four turnovers, a terrific 4:1 ratio, while holding the visitors to 31 percent field goal shooting.

Sure, this team plays a little differently than its predecessors, but I’ll admit that the trend away from the pure Princeton System has been there for a while. The 1998 Tigers played a different brand of Princeton basketball, with two players — Brian Earl and Mitch Henderson — that could take their man off the dribble and finish at the rim. With Amir Bell, Steven Cook, Devin Cannady, Myles Stephens and Spencer Weisz, this year’s edition frequently puts five players on the floor together that can all do this.

In 1998, Princeton center Steve Goodrich famously told Sports Illustrated’s Alexander Wolff, “If North Carolina or Kansas ran our offense, they’d be incredible at it.  The passes we throw for layups, they’d be throwing to the rim and dunking.”  (Back Door Men Princeton outfoxes foes with the oldest of plays. Sports Illustrated. Jan. 12, 1998) Guess what? For this year’s Tigers, the backdoor layup has been largely replaced by the backdoor dunk.

The core principles of the “Princeton System” that Pete Carril taught here are alive and well at Old Nassau. I’m pretty sure that my father (who passed away this fall) would love this team as much as I do.

7 thoughts on “Learning to love the “new” Princeton Tigers”

  1. Jim, thanks for the great post. I also watched the pre-conference play with a great deal of dismay. After all, the players on the court were mostly upperclassmen who have played together within Henderson’s system for years. To my relief and delight, the transformation to the team we all thought we would be seeing this year with the senior core (albeit missing two huge contributors) did happen.

    I was an undergraduate during the golden era of 1989-1992 and was fortunate to witness firsthand the culmination of the pure form you describe above. Regarding the Goodrich quote, while the backdoor dunk did occasionally happen (paging Matt Eastwick), its scarcity was what made it all the more memorable.

    • ESH–that was a great era for Princeton basketball. The ’91 loss to Nova in the 1st round at the Carrier Dome still haunts me.

  2. Really nice essay, Jim. I’m curious what you and others out there think is the reason that the light suddenly switched “on” for the Tigers this year. Was it simply the fact that they started playing lesser competition once League play began? Was it the entry of Myles Stephens into the starting lineup? Were there coaching changes that were implemented? Perhaps the tenacious defense leading to better offense? Thanks again for sharing your insights.

  3. Thanks Steve. Very good question. The team showed flashes of great potential even during the first game against BYU but those were followed by stretches in which the discipline appeared to be lacking. I believe that Mitch really pulled them together–and that he really earned that coaching award this year. I’d also suspect that the transition from Brian Earl to Kerry Kittles as assistant coach took a little while to jell but that once he settled in, he adding a lot of value to the team. Finally, I don’t know if Hans Brase was ever fully healed or exactly when Henry Caruso’s injury first appeared (others here probably know more than I do) . Neither of these two very fine players ever looked like their former selves to me. And with Hans, there may have been an awkward dynamic of a “super-senior” leader who’d been missing for a year being added back to an already very seasoned team. Once the new roles were sorted out, with Stephens and Cannady starting and Bell, Brennan and Gladson coming in off the bench, there appeared to be a calm that settled in and the team just kept improving.

  4. Jim–

    When Amir is playing, 5 guys who can take their man off the dribble, absolutely. Add to that: 5 guys who are plus passers, who are plus shooters from downtown, 5 who are at least average or plus dribblers, and 4 or 5 guys who can shoot 3s off the dribble. Last time we really saw that combination of skill sets was Mitch, Brian, Steve, Gabe and Jamie. If any one of these guys was missing any one of those skills, the team is easier to defend.

    Don’t underestimate the importance of Pete Miller draining that three in the first half against Dartmouth. If they have to respect that, it opens up more things when he is playing, too.

  5. Stuart, I hope no one interpreted my essay as questioning the critical role that Pete Miller has played for this team. His defense has been solid this year and opponents underestimate his offense at their peril. He can drive the ball, has a nifty hook shot and that three he popped against the Green was a thing of beauty!

    And thanks for the memory of 1998–what a team!

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