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Princeton paranoia

- The Washington Times - Friday, March 30, 2007

Even if he didn't plan it, Georgetown coach John Thompson III doled out hugs in a distinct line after the Hoyas beat North Carolina in the East Region final Sunday. He and his father, John Thompson Jr., shared the first embrace, naturally. Big John built the foundation of Georgetown basketball and added many floors. His son built it back up.

The father-son dynamic of the Thompsons, well-chronicled throughout the NCAA tournament, will receive even more scrutiny this weekend at the Final Four. Georgetown is back in it for the first time since 1985, when Big John was the coach. The relationship, in all its forms, is real, complex and likely impervious to overstatement.

So is the bond between Thompson and his old coach at Princeton, which is why Pete Carril was next for a hug.

Thompson's development as a coach came largely because of the Princeton effect, embodied by the little man who was wearing a Georgetown cap on his bald head. Now 76, Carril lacks Big John's physical presence and blood ties with Thompson, but his spiritual presence and basketball ties remain nearly as profound.

"[Carril] is such a part of my consciousness," Thompson told reporters after the overtime victory that sent the Hoyas to Atlanta and tomorrow's national semifinal game against Ohio State. "There's not too many decisions on the floor or off the floor where I don't have Coach's voice in my head. He told me how to think and see the game."

And he schooled Thompson in the precise and patient Princeton offense, another hot tournament topic. That is one that Thompson has heard too much about and spends a lot of time downplaying.

"I think too much is made of that," he said. "People say the Princeton offense, and what pops into people's heads are slow white guys that are gonna hold the ball, for, you know, 35, 40 seconds and then take a 3-pointer and then get a layup.

"Some of the teams, the teams I played on when I was at Princeton, we did that. But for the most part, that's just a connotation, an image that comes up. When I say, 'the Princeton offense,' I just think of guys playing together, sharing the ball, talented basketball, talented, unselfish players."

No one seemed happier to hear Thompson's comments than Carril.

"We buried the Princeton offense, and the Georgetown offense was born," he said in a telephone interview this week.

"The things he did to add to the old style, the little nuances, the way they got their shots, the way they incorporate individual things we never did at Princeton to keep the flowing, it was a remarkable job. I'm tired of hearing about the Princeton offense."

At once affable and cantankerous (in other words, the quintessential curmudgeon), Carril seems to have lost little of the bite he employed with success as Princeton's coach from 1967 to 1997 before he became an NBA assistant coach and taught the you-know-what to the big boys.

Carril was tough on Thompson, as he was on all his players. He said even Big John, a large, intimidating man whose coaching nature ventured way beyond prickly, was a little put off.

"It took a while for him to get used to that," Carril said.

An undersized forward at Gonzaga High School in Northwest, the 6-foot-4 Thompson drew little interest from the big college programs and, Carril said, had to take his college boards twice to meet Princeton's lofty Ivy League standards.

"He really wanted to go," Carril said. "He wasn't fast enough to be a guard, and he wasn't big enough to be a forward. Our place was perfect.

"We got that guy because he was not really a good jumper, and he wasn't particularly fast. After seeing him play, I wrote a letter telling him he's got to take his shots when he can. His father told me I was the first coach who ever told him to shoot. He passed the ball so beautifully. He saw the whole floor. With one pass he could destroy a press. When he came to Princeton, he saw everything we were trying to do. He probably became the best passing forward we ever had."

Princeton assistant Howie Levy said Thompson, a four-year starter, arrived ready to play as a freshman.

"Coach Carril was not that much different from his father," Levy said. "He grew up in a basketball family, and that's what he wanted to do. I'm guessing his father yelled at him when he was growing up. He did not accept mistakes. He was probably more ready than most freshmen because of his upbringing, and obviously he was around great players and great teams as a kid."

Carril, like John Thompson Jr., was not for everyone.

"I won't say it was a morality play, but he would talk about you as a person, and sometimes it could hurt," Levy said. "It wasn't name-calling. It was like, you didn't miss a shot because your wrist was wrong; you missed a shot because of some element in your character. Your whole way of playing was sort of based on who you were, your work ethic, how much you cared, how unselfish you are."

Big John came to see his son play at Princeton once, during the younger Thompson's senior year, sitting high up in Jadwin Gymnasium so as not to cause a stir. Carril said the Tigers beat Penn, their archrival, and Thompson had 12 assists.

Something else stands out, a small thing on its surface but not to Carril. It was when Thompson took his recruiting visit. Riding in the car from the airport, Thompson crumpled up the remnants of breakfast, a paper bag and an orange juice container.

"He took care of it and made sure he threw it away," Carril said. "A lot of people would have just left it there."

Thompson started his coaching career as a volunteer under Carril and became a full-time assistant to Carril's successor, Bill Carmody, He replaced Carmody in 2000 and led the Tigers to three Ivy League titles in four seasons. Carril said Thompson is pretty much the same now as he was then.

"The thing is, John is a sincere human being," Carril said. "You can't ever question his motives. He's not doing anything to try to get ahead. The things that matter to him are human relations, the happiness he gets out of dealing with his players."

As has been routinely pointed out lately, Thompson's even-keeled, calming demeanor on and off the court contrasts markedly with the combative, bellicose nature of his dad.

"He's the same guy," former teammate Bob Scrabis said. "Nothing ever seemed to get him down. He was a very quiet leader. The nicest guy in the world. A real gentleman and a pleasure to know."

Thompson teamed in the frontcourt with Scrabis, who stood an inch shorter.

"He threw me more scoring passes than anyone I ever played with," said Scrabis, the Ivy League player of the year in 1989, the year after Thompson graduated.

"He was so intelligent with the ball and he had the knack, and few guys have it, to see where the play was going before it happened. I knew if I cut hard to the basket and John had the ball, most times I'd get a bounce pass and I'd have a layup."

Dave Orlandini, the point guard on Thompson's teams and now the coach at Vineland (N.J.) North High School, said, "If you made a cut and you were open, you had the ball in your hands. Sometimes you didn't always know how. It was unbelievable, the way he saw things. For me, the game moved too fast. For him the game moved slower. He saw everything develop."

Scrabis watched Georgetown make up a 10-point deficit in the last six minutes to tie the game in regulation and dominate the Tar Heels in overtime. So did Levy and Orlandini. The protestations of Thompson and Carril about the Princeton offense aside, what they saw looked very, very familiar — albeit with bigger, better players than what they were accustomed to.

"You can see the fundamentals, the shell, the setup," said Scrabis, who despite his outstanding career might be best known for having his shot blocked by Alonzo Mourning in the final seconds to help preserve a 50-49 Georgetown victory over Princeton in the 1989 NCAA tournament, preventing a No. 1 seed from losing to a No. 16 seed for the first and only time.

"They're doing things we didn't do because we didn't have the size or the athletic ability, but you can see it's in the mind-set of the players to trust one another, to get everybody involved, to make open shots when you get them," Scrabis said.

Said Levy: "I see it, and I recognize everything they're doing, what Coach Carril referred to how much more effective it can be with better players."

Said Orlandini: "It's all the same principles. I see a lot of the same cuts, a lot of things Carril did. That's funny. A lot of people break my chops, telling me I run the Princeton offense in high school. Now I'm gonna say I run the Georgetown offense. Let's see what they say."