The Tigers' 43-41 defeat of defending champion UCLA last March wasn't the biggest upset in tournament history, just the sweetest. It was a touching send-off for Pete Carril, the Yoda of the coaching set, as Princeton rose well above its 13th seed.
Carril is now a curious assistant with the Sacramento Kings, and truth be told, the Tigers don't miss him. Longtime assistant Bill Carmody moved up and seven of the top eight players returned, and Princeton, with a 24-3 record that is its second best since the Bill Bradley era, could get as high as a ninth seed when the tournament draw is announced Sunday.
"People expected us to be good," Carmody said. "I'm happy I'm at a place where we're expected to win, and the veteran guys made it easy. All the things Pete liked, I liked. I was with him for 14 years, and we weren't going to change much."
After admiring Princeton's patience and backdoor cuts in the season opener, Indiana's Bob Knight was a believer, and told the Tigers' captain so in a five-minute conversation.
"He told me he was incredibly impressed with how well we played," said Sydney Johnson, the ace point guard who went to Towson Catholic High. "He wanted me to make sure I told the team and our coaches how impressed he was by our worth ethic. If we could impress one of the greatest coaches in the game, we knew we were on to something.
"This is a veteran team, and there have been very few things that have surprised us. We expect to have a good showing in the tournament."
Johnson is waiting to see which guard he'll get a chance to try to shut down in the NCAAs. He's Princeton's fourth-leading scorer, but yesterday he was named Player of the Year in the Ivy League, a nod to his defensive prowess more than anything else.
"He [Johnson] wipes out every single guy he faces," Carmody said. "I don't mean a 17-point scorer being held to 11, I mean the guy gets three. I've been coaching for 20 years, and no one else comes close to his defense."
"He's the only three-time captain in Princeton history. People are always talking about the intangibles with Sydney, but there are a lot of very tangible things about his game. He's our all-time leader in steals. Last weekend, against Columbia and Cornell, he made 11 straight three-pointers. Think about that."
People are thinking about Princeton very much, thank you.
The road to the NCAA
Besides the fact that they're giddy about their unanticipated NCAA berths, what do Charleston Southern and Fairfield have in common?
Both concluded the regular season with dismal losses in Baltimore.
On Feb. 22, Charleston Southern limped out of UMBC with an overtime loss in the last game on their Big South Conference schedule. The Retrievers are No. 297 out of 305 Division I teams in the duplicate of the Ratings Percentage Index the NCAA uses as one of its checkpoints in selecting and seeding teams.
So what happened?
Minus its injured point guard, Charleston Southern had three easy wins in the Big South tournament for first-year coach Tom Conrad, who's from McSherrytown, Pa., outside Hanover.
With one guard injured and another ill, Fairfield took the MAAC title game from Canisius, a team it had lost to by 46 a month earlier.
A field of 64
Staff writer Paul McMullen gets a jump on Selection Sunday with his 64 selections for the tournament.
1. Kansas, Minnesota, North Carolina, Kentucky
2. Utah, Duke, South Carolina, UCLA
4. New Mexico, St. Joseph's, Arizona, Illinois
6. Georgia, Indiana, Colorado, Iowa State
8. Iowa, Vanderbilt, Virginia, Mississippi
11. Hawaii, Boston College, Temple, Stanford
12. SW Missouri State, x-Boston U., College of Charleston, Bowling Green
13. Valparaiso, x-Pacific, South Alabama, Old Dominion
14. Long Island, Tennessee-Chattanooga, x-Northern Arizona, Butler
15. x-Coppin State, St. Mary's, Charleston Southern, Navy
16. Murray State, x-McNeese State, x-Miss. Valley State, Fairfield
x -- projected conference tournament champion
They're not in yet
SW Mo. State: Mid-majors' best hope for at-large
Stanford: Only 17 Division I wins
Temple: Watch Owls in A-10 tournament
Boston College: Win Big East quarterfinal
Hawaii: 11-2 in last 13 games
Wisconsin: Badgers finish with Minnesota
Not out of it yet
Michigan: RPI of No. 27, but 2-6 in last 8 games
Providence: Friars could take West Virginia's place
Southern California: Could be 9-2 in last 11 games
Tulane: Loss in Conf. USA quarterfinals hurts
Pub Date: 3/07/97