Cats' first opponent is Princeton in name only, not style

With more talent, coach installs up-tempo attack

jtipton@herald-leader.comMarch 15, 2011 

Ivy Princeton Harvard Basketball

Dan Mavraides, left, drove past Harvard's Brandyn Curry in the Ivy League playoff game. Mavraides, a senior guard, said Princeton's new style "is a lot more fun."


A strange sight caught the eye of Princeton guard Dan Mavraides last weekend during the one-game Ivy League playoff against Harvard.

"We get a rebound, I look down the floor and I see five guys from Harvard sprinting back," Mavraides said on Monday. "Just turning around and sprinting back. That's not something you'd see the team do against Princeton, traditionally."

Princeton will not necessarily play the "Princeton style" against Kentucky in their NCAA Tournament game on Thursday.

Princeton used to be synonymous with offensive patience, back-door cuts, big men shooting from the perimeter and more offensive patience. That style made the Tigers an opponent to dread in the NCAA Tournament.

In 1989, Princeton rode the style to a near upset of No. 1-seeded Georgetown, which escaped the tournament's only loss to a 16th-seeded team by a score of 51-49.

Fifteen years ago Monday, Princeton beat defending national champion UCLA 43-41. Time magazine still rates that game the biggest upset in the history of the NCAA Tournament. Those seeds — No. 13 Princeton and No. 4 Dynasty — match perfectly with the Tigers' game against Kentucky in Tampa.

One big difference: Princeton no longer plays the Princeton style, at least not exclusively.

"We were playing the more traditional version of the Princeton offense three, four years ago," said Princeton Coach Sydney Johnson, a player on the Tigers' team that beat UCLA. "I thought it was best suited for the team. We wanted to control tempo. We wanted great possessions. Quite frankly, we weren't able to defend as well."

That's changed this season as Princeton's rolled up a 25-6 record. The Tigers average 69.6 points, which is on pace for the program's most prolific scoring team since 1971-72. That's not all that far off Kentucky's scoring average of 76.4 points.

UK Coach John Calipari noted Monday how the perception of Princeton needs to change.

"They can run back cuts," he said, "but they also do a lot of post-up basketball. They'll do pick-and-roll basketball. So it's not just straight Prince ton."

Leading rebounder Kareem Maddox has taken seven three-point shots. Center Brendan Connolly hasn't taken one.

"They do some of it," Calipari said of the Princeton style. "But they open up and go. Their big men are not three-point shooters like Princeton's normal big men are. ... They muscle you. They're athletic and they're long. ...They're good in their way."

Johnson cited improved defense as the key to faster-paced offense. Better defense creates scoring opportunities in transition and lessens the need to make every possession part of an attempt to shorten the game.

"It allows us to get out and go a little more," the Princeton coach said.

Mavraides welcomed the change.

"It's not as much a control game as it has been in the past," he said. "It's been a lot more fun from a player's perspective. Coach Johnson realized this team is a little more talented. He's seen in practice we've been able to get into people a little bit, force turnovers and get some easy baskets. That gives us leeway to run a little bit."

Johnson sounded ready to move beyond tales of yesteryear. He good-naturedly noted the "special moment" that was the victory over UCLA in 1996. But, he added, his goal as coach was about his players making "their own history. Let's stop talking about Sydney Johnson. Those days are over."

Johnson described Kentucky as a team that could excel no matter the pace of the game.

"Do we want to make it an 80- or 90-point game?" he asked. "That might play in their hands. At the same time, they're only playing six or seven guys. I don't want to tip my hand. ...

"We're going to try to do a little bit of both. Control the tempo and also get out and get some easy ones, too."

That sounded like conventional basketball. Likewise, Johnson said Princeton seeks the same kind of players as any other school.

"We want the players who get after it," he said. "Who view themselves as basketball players. It's not just a hobby or something to pass the time. I like guys who compete. Bottom line: we want the player who cares a lot. Then they have to get grades.

"When you put those two together and you get them to buy into the system and buy into working hard for each other, you get what I think is this year's Princeton team."

Kentucky Wildcats (24-8) Roster | Schedule, results | Stats

Princeton Tigers (25-6) Roster | Schedule, results | Stats

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