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 7½ 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.