It’s been more than two decades since Pete Carril coached his last basketball game at Princeton University, and not long after the signature win of his distinguished career: A 43-41 upset of defending champion UCLA in the first round of the 1996 NCAA Tournament.

The Smart Take from the Strong, Pete CarrilThe so-called Princeton Offense, associated with deliberate half-court strategy, back door plays and low scoring, was quite the counter to the athletic, fast-breaking high-octane “programs” of the major conferences.

However, it might have been a first round NCAA tourney loss by Princeton a few years before that embodied what so many saw in Carril and a style of play often regarded as out of fashion, if at times necessarily effective.

 

News, Views and Reviews About Sports Books, History and Culture

Also In This Issue: A Radio Announcer’s Haunting Silence; A Wrestler-Poet; Pakistani Cricket; New Baseball Books; Remembering Lou Duva and Bill Webb

On St. Patrick’s Day 1989, the Tigers nearly knocked off Georgetown at the Providence Civic Center in what would have been the biggest upset in the history of college basketball. Princeton was a No. 16 seed, while the mighty Hoyas, boasting future NBA star Alonzo Mourning, were a No. 1 seed.

A 16 seed had never beaten a 1 in NCAA men’s tourney play (it has happened once on the women’s side, when another Ivy League school, Harvard, won at Stanford in 1998).

At halftime, Princeton led 29-21, then stretched the margin to 10 points at the start of the second half, and a late Friday night national TV audience on ESPN began growing, mesmerized by the possibility of a monumental, historic event. Dick Vitale, watching from the studio, was strangely quiet after promising to John Saunders he would don a Princeton cheerleading uniform if the unimaginable took place.

While Georgetown eked out a 50-49 win—blocking two last-ditch Princeton shots in the final seconds—that game was instrumental in pushing the notion of March Madness into the chaotic space it occupies this time of year.

When the 68-team men’s NCAA bracket is revealed later today, TV analysts will be eagerly looking for early-round upset possibilities that today don’t seem like upsets at all. And fans and non-fans alike will be filling out office pool brackets with more than one or two teams seeded in double-digits advancing, even as far as the Sweet 16.

As Sean Gregory and Alexander Wolff wrote in Sports Illustrated about the Princeton-Georgetown game, power conferences were working to banish automatic NCAA bids for smaller conferences during the end of the 1980s. This is when the Big East, led by Georgetown, was rounding into dominating form. At the same time, rules changes went into effect that gave the little guys a chance, especially the 3-point shot.Billion Dollar Game, Princeton vs. Georgetown basketball, Pete Carril

Princeton’s showing reflected those changes. More importantly, the entertainment value of a David vs. Goliath game was irresistible to the media, especially television. Only a few years earlier, the NCAA lost its ability to control college football television rights, its main source of revenue, in an antitrust case.

After being ruled a cartel by the U.S. Supreme Court, the NCAA found in the men’s tournament a way to refill its coffers, especially since it had recently begun sponsoring women’s sports.

Princeton-Georgetown helped create the now endlessly hyped event called March Madness, as reinforced in a 2015 ESPN 30 For 30 short film, “Billion Dollar Game.” Eight months after that game, CBS negotiated the first 10-figure deal to show the tournament over-the-air, including weeknight prime time slots.

Another little gem from that Gregory-Wolff piece is also essential for understanding Carril’s influence today: While Mourning dominated in the paint, they noted, “14 of Princeton’s 21 baskets had come from incursions into his space, on layups.”

The style that Pete Carril carved out thrives today with college programs that perpetuate March Madness with their upsets, and to a certain degree by the wildly successful UConn women’s team, aiming for a fifth consecutive NCAA title with a record 107-game winning streak.

As Ben Cohen wrote this week in The Wall Street Journal, the emphasis on spacing, passing and three-point shooting that were illustrative of Princeton teams is also being taken up with a fervor in the NBA. Most of all, by the Golden State Warriors.

Basketball's Princeton-Style Offense, Derek Sheridan, Pete Carril“You’d have to be blind as a bat not to notice that,” the ever-crusty Carril, now 86, told Cohen about what he’s seeing in the NBA.

The difference, of course, is that NBA teams are blending athletic prowess, muscle and relentless pace with the rigors of Carril’s offense, and above all: Taking good shots.

In his memoir, “The Smart Take from the Strong,” Carril’s writes about being the basketball-loving son of a Spanish immigrant growing up in the steel mill, football-besotted town of Bethlehem, Pa.

The extension of Carril’s outlook, as it pertains to the dimensions of a basketball court, has resulted in a welcome, late-in-life appreciation. Pete Carril’s visionary ideas for playing the game has long been taken up at the most basic levels of basketball, and now they’re being embraced and adopted at the highest.

A Few Good Reads

Baseball Book News

Passings

  • Boxing cornerman and manager Lou Duva, 97, “was our Yogi Berra” to many of the fighters he worked with, bearing a blunt and gruff but also charming persona. Kevin Iole’s obituary has it all, including Duva’s unforgettable brawl with Roger Mayweather at a Sugar Ray Leonard fight. If you want even more from the man himself, Duva published a memoir in 2016, “A Fighting Life,” that is even more colorful that any third-party remembrance could ever be;
  • Bill Webb, 70, had much to do with how Americans saw baseball on television, as a longtime director at Fox Sports and SNY whose intimate approach was called “the Webby style.” Neil Best at Newsday has more about Webb, who previously worked at ABC and was a key figure in “The Wide World of Sports” anthology that made “up close and personal” storytelling an iconic component of American sports television.

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