Denny and Dan Earl, father and son, figured they could learn the Princeton offense easily enough. They had game tapes, they had the basketball aptitudes (Denny played at Rutgers in the mid-'60s; Dan is a senior point guard at Penn State), they even had the perfect tutor home for the holidays, just the guy to explain how a team that can't offer athletic scholarships always seems to get wide-open layups against national powers. Yet Brian Earl—Dan's younger brother and the leading scorer on a Tigers team whose only defeat this season has been a coulda-woulda-shoulda-won loss to No. 1 North Carolina—turned Christmas at the Earls' into a Yule Never Understand. "In trying to explain our offense," Brian says, "I just confused them more."
Given the Earls' difficulties in grasping what Princeton does, imagine the task facing a defense that must riddle out the Tigers' labyrinthine sequence of passes and cuts during a game. Princeton, 11-1 after last Saturday's 77-48 taking of Manhattan and at its loftiest perch in the polls in more than 30 years (15th in this week's AP poll), is a school that has always come at things from a slightly different angle, whether clinging to eating clubs in a frat-house age or lining up in the single wing offense on the gridiron long into the T formation era. Its basketball teams have been just as iconoclastic, playing a hidebound, earthbound style with a pedigree that can be traced back to the 1940s, through three legendary coaches: Pete Carril, Butch van Breda Kolff and Cappy Cappon.
But this season the Tigers have taken their backdoor offense to new levels of efficiency and sophistication. They've never passed so deftly, cut so hard or scored so audaciously. Opponents no longer regard them as just a gimmicky "visit to the dentist" team that will numb you with novocaine before applying the drill. Smart and quick, precise and talented, Princeton is drilling patients without anesthesia—outhandling, outpassing, outshooting and outdefending the likes of Texas, North Carolina State, Wake Forest and even, the 50-42 final score notwithstanding, the Tar Heels.
A starting lineup with three seniors and two juniors has much to do with the Tigers' success. Princeton's starters have now played 79 games together, if you include nine during a tour of Italy last summer. During a timeout in a 61-52 defeat of Niagara for the championship of the ECAC Holiday Festival at Madison Square Garden on Dec. 27, after the Purple Eagles had gone to a triangle-and-two defense, several Tigers asked their second-year coach, Bill Carmody, how to respond. "You're smart guys," Carmody said. "You figure it out." Princeton's players solved the problem so ably that by game's end every one of their 21 field goals had come on an assist. "To score every basket off a pass," said Niagara coach Jack Armstrong, "is picturesque."
Only this season it's more than that. It's "intimidating" is how Wake Forest coach Dave Odom put it after his Demon Deacons surrendered baskets on 11 backdoor cuts in a 69-64 loss on Dec. 19. North Carolina coach Bill Guthridge, aware that Princeton would have beaten his Tar Heels in the Dean Dome six days earlier by sinking only three of 22 missed three-pointers, actually believes the Ivy Leaguers could win a national championship. "What they're doing is near genius," says St. John's coach Fran Fraschilla. "They're the story of the season so far."
With Princeton having already made four impressive appearances on national TV, curiosity has extended far beyond the Earls' home in Medford, N.J. The Tigers' basketball office is receiving some 70 inquiries a week from high school and youth coaches wanting a playbook or video. A disconcerting number of those requests start something like, "I don't have any players either, and I'd like to learn your offense." That's the popular fallacy, that greater talents run and dunk, and lesser ones pass, cut and shoot. In fact, if even one Princeton player can't pass, cut and shoot at a high level, the offense doesn't work.
As a measure of how athletic Princeton is, consider: The Tigers missed all those threes against North Carolina in Chapel Hill and still led for 34 of the game's 40 minutes. From analyzing tape, the Tar Heels' coaching staff had concluded that the Tigers sent a typical backdoor pass through a window 14 inches wide. With the ball taking up eight of those inches, the Heels figured they could stop Princeton's back-cutting by shaving three inches off either side. They largely succeeded, limiting the Tigers to only four backdoor opportunities in 65 possessions. Yet Princeton was still lurking within five points with 1:10 to play. What that game revealed, Carmody says, is “we're good enough to play less than a perfect game and still beat anybody."
Princeton's defense is a big part of that. North Carolina star Antawn Jamison marveled at how quickly Princeton defenders arrived in the low post to harass him after he received the ball. In last Saturday's win over Manhattan they pressed the Jaspers so mercilessly that Manhattan didn't score until 7 1/2 minutes into the game.
"People are starting to realize we have players," says senior forward James Mastaglio. "They see [guard] Mitch [Henderson] drive by [Tar Heels guard] Shammond Williams and Brian [Earl] score 15 against N.C. State." On Saturday, Princeton dunked off the opening tap against Manhattan.
Of course, that's not what the Tigers are known for. Mention Princeton, and the image that comes to mind is the backdoor. Originally called "change of direction" or "pulling the string," the backdoor cut to foil an overplaying defender is one of basketball's hoariest tactics. Yet while the move itself is of Shaker simplicity, Princeton works a paradox: The back cut is a building block from which the most baroque offensive structure is built. All the ornamentation distracts defenses and allows the basic move to bamboozle again and again.
Why, you might ask, doesn't anyone else run it? "If North Carolina or Kansas ran our offense, they'd be incredible at it," says senior center Steve Goodrich. "The passes we throw for layups, they'd be throwing to the rim and dunking." Yet the offense requires selflessness, patience and every player on the floor executing every skill in the game. That's not easy to sell in an era of me first, I-want-it-now and narrow specialization.
Further, as the Earls discovered, the offense doesn't lend itself to simple deconstruction. There's nothing pat and diagrammable. "It's designed to have a counter for everything a defense does," says Goodrich. "We constantly read and react. If a shot isn't there, there's always an option." But there are several principles to the offense, and examining them helps open a window on the backdoor:
--No numbers allowed. "Today you always hear, 'What are you, a one or a two?'" says van Breda Kolff, one meaning a point guard, two being a shooting guard. "The question should be, 'Can you play?'" Except for center, every Princeton part is interchangeable.
--Few plays are called. "People think the backdoor is a play, like fumblerooskie," says Goodrich. In fact, on any given trip down the floor the Tigers don't know exactly what will unfold. The players take their cues from the first couple of passes in a possession and from Goodrich's position on the floor. Then they play off their defenders and each other, with eye contact, timing and awareness of their teammates' strengths all determining where and when they'll pass and cut. "The system isn't X's and O's," says Gabe Lewullis, the junior forward whose backdoor layup defeated defending champion UCLA in the NCAA tournament two seasons ago. "It's thinking."
--Don't run to the ball. There's no more natural urge in an offensive player without the ball than to run over to get it. Players, after all, want to shoot. Princeton preaches fleeing the ball. "It's a good way of enhancing the team concept," says Carril. "Guys who come over to the ball just feed greed and ignorance." The backdoor often occurs when a prospective passer, finding a teammate overplayed and a pass impossible, instead dribbles the ball toward that teammate. The off-the-ball defender, conditioned to help stop the dribble, perhaps shifts his weight or maybe turns his head, and—bang!—suddenly finds his man has cut behind him to the basket.
--Hit that cutter with a bounce pass. And throw it off the dribble. That way you won't telegraph your pass, you'll get it off quicker, and the ball will stay lower to the ground.
--Keep the center high. Princeton is at its best with a center like the 6'9" Goodrich, who can handle and pass the ball from the high post and step out to shoot the three. "Their centers are point-centers, and Goodrich passes the ball like Bob Cousy," says Dartmouth coach Dave Faucher.
--Keep the area below the foul line empty. With Goodrich usually at the free throw line or above, there's no other post player to clog up the lane. "We try to run our backdoors into the area where our center isn't," says Carmody.
--It's cutting, not screening. Don't confuse what Princeton runs with Indiana's motion offense, a choreography of industrial-strength screens and curls for jump shots. "We hardly set screens," says Joe Scott, one of the three Princeton assistants, all of whom played for Carril. "We just cut." And the Tigers are counseled to "cut with credibility." The harder the cut, the faster the defense will flow in the direction of the cut—and the more effective the countercut. Carril likes to tell of the time he was on his way out of his favorite Princeton tavern, headed for a clinic, and asked the barflies what he should say to these young, aspiring players. A half-in-the-bag regular known as Whiskey Steve piped up, "Tell 'em to watch where they're going." That's not a bad summary of the offense.
--If there's no answer at the back door, knock at the front. A backdoor team has to also be a good shooting team to be successful. Say Goodrich has dribbled toward the man guarding Earl, and Earl's defender, respecting the backdoor cut, has stepped back. That's when Princeton will screen. Goodrich simply hands off to Earl, a 39.6% three-point shooter, who squeezes off a shot over Goodrich's pick. "The defender is like a soccer goalie on a penalty kick," says Carmody. "He's got to choose one or the other—defend the back cut or defend the shot over the screen."
The potential options to the offense are limited only by the players' smarts and skills. Since late last season Earl and Henderson, a former all-state quarterback in Indiana who was drafted as an outfielder by the Yankees, have been working a sort of option on an option, a graduate-level backdoor skip pass that Henderson whips from the wing to a cutting Earl on the far side of the lane—“our version of the alley-oop," Carmody calls it. When the two connected against Wake Forest, the ball whizzed within inches of the head of an oblivious Loren Woods, the Deacons' 7-foot center. "We're trying some things I never thought we'd try, and it's because these guys can do them," Carmody says. "Now they're Pavlov's dogs. 'I got a layup out of that. I'm going to try that again.'"
Thus Carmody faces a temptation. He has what is perhaps a once-in-a-career collection of passers and cutters who are also good shooters. Should he refine the offense to higher levels of precision, to test the limits of what his whiz kids can do? Or retrench for conference play, which begins this week at Yale, as the Tigers chase a third straight Ivy title and trip to the NCAA tournament? Do you play for art or play for commerce?
To be faced with such a choice is to suggest words that might have been uttered by a former head cheerleader at Old Nassau. Sixty-seven years after the late Jimmy Stewart graduated, it's a wonderful season.