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Princeton Tigers hope to recapture upset magic at NCAA Tournament

TAMPA — Princeton basketball coach Sydney Johnson, when talking about the Tigers' second-round matchup Thursday at the St. Pete Times Forum against fourth seed Kentucky, said he isn't afraid of playing a game in the 80s or 90s.

He meant points, not the decade.

Mention Princeton basketball and it conjures up images of picks and rolls, screens and back-door cuts, walk-it-up halfcourt sets milking the shot clock and big men who could stroke it from the perimeter.

It's Gabe Lewullis' layup kissing the glass with time running out in a stunning win 15 years ago this week over defending national champion UCLA, one of the biggest upsets in NCAA Tournament history. It's the same style that produced a two-point loss in '89 to No. 1 seed Georgetown, the closest a 16th seed has ever been to marching past the first round.

So what's this? Princeton running and gunning, pressuring the basketball and dialing up tempo? It's enough to strain those crewnecks on Nassau Street.

It's not that Johnson, a member of the team that toppled the Bruins, doesn't embrace that history.

"You go into the airport and they find out we're the Princeton basketball team," Johnson said. "And these (players) are too young to remember it, but random people are talking to them about remembering the UCLA game. It's a moment I can cherish the rest of my life."

Guard Dan Mavraides had another moment that might redefine Princeton basketball. It came long before Douglas Davis hit a 12-foot jumper at the buzzer in Saturday's 63-62 win over Harvard in the Ivy League playoff at Yale, sending the Tigers back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2004.

"I saw five guys from Harvard sprinting back, just turning around and sprinting all the way back," Mavraides said. "That's not usually something you see teams doing traditionally against Princeton."

Not that Johnson has abandoned Princeton's halfcourt principles and execution.

"We were playing the more traditional version of the Princeton offense three or four years ago because it was best suited for those teams," Johnson said. "We wanted to control tempo, we wanted to make sure we were getting great stops and great possessions on offense. And quite frankly, we weren't able to defend as well.

"We've made major, major strides defensively. We can pressure people, we can turn people over or we can just grind it out in the half court defensively, so that allows us to get out and go a little bit more. That's how I see it."

Face it, Princeton never has played on a level basketball floor except in the Ivy League, which doesn't offer full scholarships but dishes out aid according to need.

As legendary former Princeton coach Pete Carril has said, "the real superstars here are at the library."

But Johnson is quick to point out that he walks into the same gym joints searching for players "as any every other coach in America."

"We want players who get after it, who view themselves as basketball players. This is not just a hobby or something to pass time.

"The bottom line is we want basketball players who care a lot about being good at it and then they have to have great grades. When you put those two together and get them to buy into a system and working hard for each other, you get what I think is this year's Princeton basketball team."

In rolling to a 25-6 record, Princeton averaged 69.6 points per game, threatening the school record from 1971-72. The high-octane Wildcats average 76.4 points per game.

Johnson went so far as to hint he believes the Tigers, the No. 13 seed in the East region, might wear Kentucky down Thursday in Tampa.

"Do we want to make it an 80- or 90-point game?" Johnson 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."

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Princeton Tigers hope to recapture upset magic at NCAA Tournament 03/15/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 15, 2011 11:16pm]

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