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."
January 12, 1998
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
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
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
--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
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