Web Exclusives: The Varsity Typewriter
a PAW web exclusive column by Patrick Sullivan '02 (email: pas@princeton.edu)

December 5, 2001:
Beautiful basketball
PU in action: A class act on the court

By Patrick Sullivan '02

I'm feeling it already — basketball fever is in the air.

Princeton and round-ball are synonymous for many. For me, the thrill of a close-played college basketball game epitomizes the excitement of amateur athletics.

Tradition-steeped basketball defines the men's team at Princeton. I was a high school junior when I watched the NCAA tournament in March 1996, when the upstart Tigers handed the fourth seed, defending national champion UCLA Bruins a stunning blow, defeating them with seconds to play, 43-41. Viewing the game on television proved slow at first — the methodical, old-school Tiger offense has been likened to watching paint dry — but as the contest progressed, I found myself riveted to the action, and obviously, cheering for the underdog Tigers. (Little did I know that in two years, I'd be courtside for all the (in)action.)

That 1996 tournament game unfolded in true Princeton style. The Tiger defense shut down UCLA over the last six minutes of the game, effectively stifling the storied Bruins. With seconds left, Steve Goodrich '98's back-door bounce pass found streaking freshman Gabe Lewullis for the textbook layup.

The game, which according to a November 5 ESPN Classics poll ranks as the third best college basketball upset on the books, spoke to the character and heart of that particular Tiger team. And though things have changed a lot since — legendary coach Pete Carril retired, all-star center Chris Young signed a professional baseball contract, sophomore shooting guard Spencer Gloger changed his mind, and changed it back, about which school he wants to play for, and coach Bill Carmody transferred to Northwestern — the spirit of Princeton basketball remains the same. These guys are a classy team.

Many talented sports teams at Princeton consistently compete well on the national level, including men's lacrosse, both crew teams, fencing, squash, men's track/cross-country, and field hockey. The basketball team, however, has remained truest to its game style, routinely frustrating better-ranked and more talented teams with its slow-down, carefully executed play. Princeton plays to its strengths. Maybe we can't recruit the fastest, tallest, most explosive talent, but Tiger basketball is smart basketball.

Before I came to Princeton, the exciting breakaway dunk or the turn-around, fade-away jumper reigned in my opinion as the best plays to watch. Four years later, I find it just as exciting to watch a patient motion offense pass the ball crisply around the three-point arc, looking for the open long-range jumper or the guard cutting to the basket. Better yet, I like watching a backdoor pass from the high post, finished by a simple, two-handed layup.

Classy? How else does one describe a team that for years never dunked the basketball, even when the opportunity presented itself, instead choosing the less showy, but equally effective, layup?

And while the raucous atmosphere in Jadwin Gymnasium certainly pales in comparison to places like Duke's Cameron Indoor Stadium, Princeton basketball fans certainly voice their appreciation. The student cheers can be downright mean — "sit down, you suck" — comes to mind, a goading chant directed to the opposing bench whenever a player is removed from the game. My personal favorite is the "Safety School" chorus, often directed at hated Penn. At the same time, Princeton fans, whether alums or students, show some respect in their obnoxious support. The same may not be said of the visiting Penn fans, who during the national anthem in Jadwin at the final home game of the 99-00 season, chanted "---___hole" at Coach Carmody.

Why, one asks, do I applaud the basketball team for a game played nearly five years ago? Because this year, the Tigers have fared equally well against some of the strongest teams in the nation. Though the "W" column doesn't tell the tale — the team's record is 1-4 as of press time — Princeton faced No. 9 St. Joseph's and most recently, No. 4 Maryland, and played true, traditional Tiger basketball. Both games ended in defeat, but the team successfully frustrated two of the best programs in the country, holding each below its typical scoring average, and in both instances, creating at least temporary panic.

Against St. Joe's, a Sweet 16 tournament team last year, Princeton played to a deadlock 31-31 halftime score. After another tie at 42, the Hawks pieced together a 9-0 run, and the Tigers lost 74-63. Against No. 4 Maryland December 2, the Tigers led by 15 early in the second half until the Terrapins capitalized on 16 offensive rebounds, tallying 21 second-chance points. With one minute to play, the Tigers were down 55-53, but a costly turnover sealed their fate.

Both tough losses speak to the continuing excellence and adaptability of Princeton basketball. Even when physically outmatched, the Tigers play with their wits, slowing the tempo and forcing opponents to alter their run-and-gun offensive tactics. Last season, the team overcame bigger adversity, and under the tutelage of freshman coach John Thompson '88, made it to the tournament despite a thin lineup and some wrenching Ivy League losses. Coach Thompson worked wonders. (Just don't leave too soon, huh?)

Bring on the Kansas Jayhawks. And though it goes with out saying, BEAT PENN.

You can reach Patrick at pas@princeton.edu.