Thursday, March 17, 2011

History Lesson

Going back exactly 22 years from today, back to March 17, 1989, Princeton nearly knocked off Georgetown in the opening round of the NCAA men's basketball tournament.

The Tigers, seeded 16th, had barely scraped their way into the tournament that year, knocking off Harvard in Cambridge on the final night of the season - rebounding from losses to Penn and Dartmouth - to finish the Ivy League at 11-3, barely ahead of the 10-4 Big Green.

With a regular-season record of 19-7 (two of which were against Division III schools) and representing a league that had lost its three previous NCAA appearances by a combined 120 points (that'd be 40 points per game, by the way), Princeton was the lowest-regarded team in the field.

Georgetown, mighty Georgetown, was the biggest kid on the block. The Hoyas weren't just good; they were nasty, a bunch of vicious defenders and intimidating figures who were ranked No. 1 in the country.

The Hoyas were fresh off beating Boston College, Pitt and Syracuse - by an average of 21 points - to win the Big East tournament. They brought with them a 26-4 record into the NCAA tournament.

Nobody gave Princeton much of a chance. In fact, most of the talk before the tournament was about how league's like the Ivy League shouldn't have an automatic bid anymore, and there was a real chance that the future of the NCAA basketball tournament would resemble what the BCS football championship has become - something that is hard for a team from a non-power conference to crack.

Also, the Princeton-Georgetown game was ESPN, not CBS, which didn't feel that there was enough interest in the early rounds to justify the expense of televising them all. Instead, CBS would pick up the tournament in its later stages, when interest would rise.

And that was the scene heading into the game at the Providence Civic Center. As tip-off approached, TigerBlog was, well, not even paying attention.

TB was still a few months away from jumping on the college beat, and with his alma mater not in the tournament, he was barely interested in seeing how much Georgetown was going to beat Princeton by.

Instead, he was on a date in Philadelphia with a young woman he'd met a few weeks earlier at a Super Bowl party at his friend Frank's house. That was the Super Bowl between the 49ers and Bengals, by the way, the one where Joe Montana brought the Niners back in the final minutes and ultimately won it on a pass to John Taylor; legend has it that Montana said "isn't that John Candy?" to the team in the huddle before the start of the last drive.

Just to give you an idea of how long ago it was and all.

Anyway, TB saw none of the Princeton-Georgetown game on television, though he does remember hearing David Brody do the radio play-by-play until that faded away. By the time the radio signal was lost, it was clear that something special was happening in the game, especially when Princeton went up 29-21 at the half.

As TB recalls, getting additional scores from that point was tough. What he does remember clearly was that he heard that it was tight midway through the second half. As TB knows now, that was after Georgetown made its move back from being down 10 to create a back-and-forth game in which neither team had more than a two-point lead for the final 11:44.

Think about that. For the last 11:44 of an NCAA tournament game neither team ever led by more than two.

In the end, as everyone knows, Georgetown prevailed, 50-49, as Alonzo Mourning blocked shots by Kit Mueller and Bob Scrabis in the final six seconds. TigerBlog didn't know the final score until he got back in the car and heard it on a sports report.

By the start of next basketball season, TigerBlog was covering the team, and that began what is now a nearly-quarter-century odyssey with Princeton basketball.

TB has seen the Georgetown game on video or ESPN Classic a million times (Princeton should have won), and he's basically memorized the box score. He got to know every Princeton player and coach who participated in the game, and he routinely gets emails from several of them all these years later.

But on that day, TB was just another Penn alum who could care less about the Princeton-Georgetown game. He never would have guessed at that moment how close he would get to the Princeton program and how much he'd come to learn about a game he didn't pay attention to that night in Philadelphia.

That game, and the Princeton-UCLA game in 1996 that TB was very much at, have important historical contexts, but they also show exactly what it will take for Princeton to have a shot today against Kentucky in the 2011 NCAA tournament.

The prevailing theory is that Princeton needs to come out and shoot 10 for 15 from three-point range to have a chance. While that certainly would be great, it's not the main blueprint.

Princeton does not have to play a perfect offensive game. In fact, if you combine the Georgetown and UCLA games, the Tigers shot 38 for 90 (42.2%), including 13 for 43 (30%) from three-point range. Princeton also was 3 for 10 from the foul line and outscored 17-3 from the line in the two games combined.

Obviously, in neither game was Princeton an offensive machine.

Also, while Princeton led for most of the game against Georgetown, it had the lead for fewer than three minutes of the game against UCLA and trailed 7-0 at the first TV timeout, establishing early on that Princeton would have to play from behind.

So what's the key?

Well, there are two.

The first is that Kentucky has to miss shots. Some of them will be open ones, perhaps even ones that the Wildcats usually make. In this game, though, they have to not go in. Especially from three-point range.

Georgetown and UCLA combined to shoot 34 for 81 (41.9%), despite having a huge physical advantage that would figure to have allowed them to dump the ball inside for dunks and easy layups.

Even more importantly, the two were a combined 6 for 28 (21%) from three-point range.

The other key is tempo. The game cannot get out of the 50s, or Princeton will be in real trouble. For one thing, Kentucky averages 76.4 points per game, so playing a game where the points aren't coming like they normally do will frustrate the Cats.

Princeton doesn't figure to get many easy baskets. Against UCLA and Georgetown, Princeton was outrebounded 66-37, and the two opponents combined for 22 offensive rebounds to 11 for Princeton. In other words, the chance for some easy putbacks isn't what it normally is.

Yes, Princeton averages 69.6 points per game and is comfortable pushing the ball, and that's fine to a certain extent. But an up-tempo game will create way more easy chances for Kentucky than Princeton.

Basically, Princeton's best chance is to get into a game that is sloppy and mostly half-court.

If that's the case and Kentucky's missing, then that's the best chance for an upset.

In other words, it's more important that Kentucky shoot 35% than Princeton shoot 55%.

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