Princeton Finds Way to Win Without Talent


Pete Carril’s nostalgic world of basketball spins ‘round and ‘round. It topples South Carolina, stymies Rutgers, gives Georgetown every reason to be paranoid.

It also takes the sport into another realm, away from the me-against-you game popularized in the NBA. Individually, Princeton’s five players seldom equal their counterparts. Collectively, they make that a meaningless detail.

Take Matt Lapin. He’s a 6-foot-7 senior, not especially quick, not especially imposing--a decent player.

Lapin figured Princeton’s basketball program suited him perfectly. The Tigers rely on passing, a skill he owns and enjoys. They care less about trivial matters.


“We don’t need to be able to jump really high,” Lapin says.

They still win. In 22 years as Princeton’s coach, Carril has had one losing season. The Tigers have won or shared the Ivy League title nine times.

But Carril’s light shines especially bright right now, as he prepares Princeton for the University of San Francisco’s annual holiday tournament. The Tigers were to meet Xavier Friday night, followed by USF-Canisius in the other semifinal game.

In last year’s NCAA tournament, Carril and Princeton nearly flung an arrow straight into Goliath’s heart. The Tigers, seeded 16th in the East region, befuddled and outplayed No. 1 Georgetown.


They led by eight points at halftime, literally leaving Dick Vitale speechless. The Hoyas ultimately won 50-49, but Carril and his team reinforced the unique lure of college basketball.

“Basketball is the one sport that the underdogs can win,” USF Coach Jim Brovelli says. “You have to root for a Princeton. They understand how to play the game so well.”

The lessons come from Carril, 58. He governs practice like a professor would run a lecture, standing with his arms folded, watching the Tigers work on their signature offense.

The pattern that so frustrated Georgetown will last into the ‘90s and probably longer. Hold the ball for a while, letting the defense’s impatience sprout.

Launch into perpetual motion, a succession of screens, cuts and passes that leaves the impatient defenders confused. If the backdoor cut to the basket is open, take the layup. If not, shoot the three-point shot. The backdoor will be there next time.

The introduction of a 45-second shot clock in 1986 did little to alter Carril’s Tigers. They simply use 35 to 40 seconds on each possession.

“Forty-five seconds is a long time,” Carril says. “Very few teams can hold the ball against a strong team for 30 seconds.

“The perception is that we hold the ball all the time. We never hold it for more than 15 or 16 seconds.”


Holding the ball against furious defensive pressure is more difficult than it sounds. Teams like Georgetown play fiercely aggressive defense, trying to cause turnovers.

“But Princeton players give the ball up before they get in trouble,” Brovelli said. “These guys will not go one-on-one.

“They’ll stand there and wait for the pass.”

Brovelli twice has coached against Carril, once with the University of San Diego and two years ago with USF. Opposing coaches often become as frustrated as their players.

“You’ve got to be patient with yourself, and instill that in your kids,” Brovelli said. “All they want you to do is lose a little concentration.”

They have to make up ground somewhere. Princeton can match talent with other Ivy League schools, but the equation becomes wildly lopsided against top-flight athletes such as Georgetown’s.

Princeton offers no athletic scholarships. The best player in school history, Bill Bradley, landed a decent post-NBA job: U.S. senator.

Yet through Carril’s wizardry--the 1975 NIT championship, an ’83 NCAA victory over Oklahoma State, narrow losses to Kentucky and UNLV--the Tigers hold up against big-time opponents. They’re the perpetual David, a situation Carril insists he does not enjoy.


“It’s more like, ‘Can you stand it?’ ” he says. “You have to. It has to be done, so you do it.”

They did it last March, looking mighty Georgetown in the eye and never flinching. Lapin remembers being “bummed out” when learning of Princeton’s first-round opponent; before long, he watched the usually steady Hoyas “getting confused.”

“We were trying not to embarrass ourselves,” Carril says. “And before you knew it, we had a chance to win.”

Carril has won 393 times, 64 percent of the games he has coached. He preaches defense as loudly as the motion offense; in seven of the last 14 seasons, Princeton has led the nation in scoring defense.

Not surprisingly, coaching offers came his way, a couple of times from bigger college programs and once from an NBA team. But he stayed put, and will do so until he retires “in five or six years.”

Until then, Princeton’s group of smart, unathletic players will hold the ball, make their backdoor cuts and get their easy shots.

Who needs to jump high?