What is the Princeton offense? Master Yoda laughs. Pete Carril is 72 years old. His wispy white hair, throaty rasp and impish grin conspire to make him appear more gnomelike than ever. He's wearing a Kings sweatshirt—he has been an assistant for the team since 1996—and a baseball cap that reads YO! on the front. "I don't think it's that innovative," he says, all evidence to the contrary. "The basic difference [between this system and others] is that there's a greater use of cutting, and not much picking. It's supposed to take the tension out of a game, so five guys aren't just complaining about getting enough touches, all that bulls—-. You know the ball's going to come to you at the right time. If you're not skillful you can't play in this offense, because everyone is the point guard. The minute you have the ball in your hand, you're expected to see what to do, to read the defense."
To hear Carril tell it, his offense is a hodgepodge of borrowed philosophies. When he began coaching at Easton (Pa.) High in 1952, his teams ran the five-man weave used by La Salle's Ken Loeffler and Villanova's Al Severance. "As it went on, we picked up things," Carril says. There was the shuffle cut run by Albany's Dick Sauers, the low-post elbow screen run by Red Auerbach's Boston Celtics (" Sam Jones hit so many bank shots coming off that elbow screen") and the dribble handoffs of Red Holzman's New York Knicks. From Butch van Breda Kolff, his predecessor at Princeton, Carril borrowed another touch, moving his center from the low post to the high post and clearing space in the lane for backdoor cuts.
Carril's genius was in the way he seamlessly linked all those sets, forcing opponents to pick their poison, like a soccer goalkeeper who has to move one way or the other when facing a penalty kick: Do you want to give up open outside shots, or do you want to defend the perimeter and be bamboozled by backdoor layups? Combined with Princeton's monotonous pace, the approach always gave Carril's teams, without the benefit of athletic scholarships, a chance to beat the best teams in college basketball. " Coach Carril has been very effective at choreographing sequential movement in ways that create counters to counters," says Gary Walters, the Princeton athletic director who played for Carril in high school. "When you defend one portion of the sequence, you set yourself up for having more trouble defending the next step."
The offense isn't for everyone, of course, particularly at a time when mastery of fundamentals has reached an alltime low. In its purest form, it requires a center who can shoot from the outside and deliver one-handed bounce passes on a dime to backdoor cutters. It requires an agile power forward who can cut, pass and shoot, since the offense makes no distinctions between its four nonpost players. Not least, it requires selfless players who can think. "It's very time consuming," Carmody says. "I don't spend any time in practice on defense. At all. Ever. But you're always guarding the other team in practice, so we get it done."
Over three decades and 525 wins, naturally, Carril realized there was treasure in the Princeton playbook, and he developed a pathological fear that rivals would steal his creation. Wasn't that why he had closed his practices all those years? Why, in a violation of coaching protocol, he often refused to exchange game tapes with other schools? Why, whenever another coach called to inquire about the offense, Carril would unleash a volley of invective ("Do what I did, and f——— figure it out!") and hang up the phone?
The first outsider to infiltrate Princeton's inner circle was Jimmy Tillette. This was in 1996, when Tillette was an assistant at Samford, a Baptist college in Birmingham. An avowed egghead and lover of Beethoven, Chopin and Wagner—he named his son Tristan after the hero of Wagner's opera—Tillette is possessed of a relentless curiosity about all things hoops. In other words he's the perfect Maven. "I'm the only coach in Alabama who doesn't play golf," Tillette says. "I had to do something in the spring, and I always liked to take another team and figure out how they do what they do. So one spring I picked out Princeton." For weeks Tillette spent six hours a day poring over tapes, compiling 99 pages of notes and then distilling those into 35 laminated sheets.
When Princeton and Samford each appeared at the Iowa State Holiday Classic in December 1995, Tillette joined Carril and Carmody for dinner. Intrigued by Tillette's notebook, Carmody invited him to Princeton the following year, after Carmody had taken over for Carril. "Tillette was the guy we talked with a lot," Carmody says. "Every day I get four or five e-mails, phone calls or letters: Can you send me your offense? I just throw 'em in the garbage. I can't deal with that, because, you know... do something. Work with it. That's what Jimmy did. He already knew the stuff, where to go and what to do, but he didn't quite get all of it. So he came up, and we spent a couple of days together."
The results were startling. In 1998-99, Tillette's second season as Samford's head coach, the Bulldogs went 24-6 and reached the NCAA tournament—a feat they had not accomplished in six years under Tillette's predecessor, John Brady, who had left for LSU. The next year Samford went 21-11, led the nation in field goal percentage (50.3) and made another trip to the NCAAs. "The concept is so solid," Tillette says. "You don't have to beat guys off the dribble or go one-on-one. It's a question of sharing the ball. Our assists-to-baskets ratio is out of sight. Three out of four baskets come off an assist." So dazzling was Samford that Carmody's brother Frank called him one night and said, "Hey, Billy, you ought to watch these guys: They're running it better than you are!"