If it wasn’t for the Princeton 1988-89 men’s basketball team, “March Madness” as it is known and loved today may never have come to be.
The NCAA Division I Basketball Championship is famous for its upsets, which typically constitute a small-conference team knocking off a blue blood of the sport. Over time, the tournament’s field of teams has expanded, making these upsets more and more common as more spots open up for smaller schools to compete. This year’s men’s tournament has been full of them — exemplified by 15-seed Oral Roberts’ unexpected takedown of both the Ohio State and Florida.
The NCAA initially expanded the tournament to its current 64-team structure in 1985, with each Division I conference champion granted a bid and the remaining spots selected by committee. In the several years to follow, many made the jump to Division I basketball and formed conferences with the hopes of qualifying for the tournament. By the 1988 season, there were 30 conferences, meaning the number of non-conference champions able to qualify for the tournament was cut down to 34.
Bigger, more-established conferences — often heavily influential on the committees determining tournament rules — were not happy with this development. The conflict was all about money; big conferences were losing out on revenue and potentially more-lucrative broadcast and advertising agreements.
After the Ivy League Champion was blown out by over 40 points in the first round of the tournament for three consecutive seasons, the Division I Committee was considering making a change. Specifically, the NCAA was considering a reform that would prevent the two weakest conferences in Division I (based on RPI, the NCAA’s computer ranking system) from having their champion automatically qualify. Small conferences like the Ivy League were at risk of exclusion from the Big Dance (a common reference to the Division I tournament); they had a chance to prove their competitiveness in the 1989 postseason.
Enter the Tigers.
The 1988-89 team, led by Hall of Fame coach Pete Carril and captain Bob Scrabis ’89, began their season looking to rebound after a third-place finish in the Ivy League conference during the year prior.
“On the last night of my freshman year, we still had a sliver of hope that we could [win the League],” Kit Mueller ’91 told The Daily Princetonian in a recent interview.
The team had beaten Cornell in their last game of the 1987-88 season. But because of other results in the League, the Big Red still won the title.
“We really blew out Cornell in that last game … and we had to hear them celebrating in the locker room,” Mueller remembered. “That was pretty painful.”
Following that season, a number of key players graduated, including team captain John Thompson III ’88 and Dave Orlandini ’88. Orlandini had averaged 15 points per game in his senior year. Despite these losses, Carril kept the team going.
Coach Pete Carril works with John Thompson III ‘88. Courtesy of Princeton Alumni Weekly.
The Princeton Offense
Under Carril, the Tigers had a distinctive playing style on both sides of the court. He is most famous for instituting the “Princeton offense,” an offensive scheme used by many coaches at all levels of competition that prioritizes patience, discipline, off-ball movement, and sound passing. It is also a largely positionless scheme, with four players positioned outside the three-point line as wings and guards, and one center moving around the key and high post areas.
“Every little thing you do on offense counts,” Carril wrote in his book The Smart Take From the Strong.
“That means that every pass, every cut, every screen, every dribble is part of the end result and therefore requires care and concern. Timing and execution are the keys to everything we try to do.”
The center was the main facilitator in the offense and had to be a good passer. Mueller filled the role well. In fact, he held the program record for career assists with 381 before Spencer Weisz ’17 broke it with 383.
In this offensive set up, the Tigers shot a great deal of three-pointers and were successful, often shooting over 40 percent from three-point range as a team. They also utilized many off-ball techniques like screens and cuts to create open shots.
“It’s one of the most enjoyable ways to play, because everyone is involved, and you’re asked to do everything right,” Scrabis remembered. “You need to be able to make shots, you need to be able to pass, you need to be able to dribble, to get your teammate open, and to get rebounds.”
Carril’s Tigers were sometimes criticized for running a “slow” offense, often using the full length of the then-45-second shot clock. Carril, on the other hand, considered the game-plan “judicious.” The Princeton offense was especially effective against teams with superior athleticism or talent, as it limited the opponent’s number of possessions, while simultaneously forcing the opponent to expend a great deal of energy defensively.
Much of the scheme had clicked during the 1987-88 season. The team had an incredible year shooting from three-point range, setting the NCAA single-season team three-point percentage record at 49.2 percent. They were also stout on defense, a trademark of Carril’s teams; the team held opponents to just 56.4 points per game. These were two pieces of the strategy that would be crucial to carry into the 1988-89 season.
The road to the tournament
Preparations for the season were intense. Princeton had not won the Ivy League since 1984, and players and coaches alike were frustrated.
“There was an expectation of Princeton going to the NCAA tournament every couple seasons,” Mueller recalled. “[Pre-season] was intense … the new guys, the upperclassmen, the coaches … wanted to win.”
The team only had two upperclassmen, Scrabis and Matt Lapin ’90, so the underclassmen needed to get familiar with Princeton’s style of play quickly. As the preseason wore on, Scrabis helped to bring the younger players up to speed.
“I had older teammates … I looked up to when I was younger,” he shared. “I took on that responsibility as a senior … the Princeton offense is not easy to get when you’re young.”
Because the team was so inexperienced, they were not predicted to do very well. Still, Scrabis felt the pressure.
“This was my senior year,” he said. “And I knew it was the last chance I had to live up to the expectations for myself and the program.”
Carril was known for organizing a difficult non-conference schedule for his team, meaning they would not have many “tune-up” opportunities against weak teams. Despite the Tigers’ challenging slate, he experimented quite a bit with lineups early in the season. This time period was especially crucial for Lapin, who found his ideal role as a sixth man for the squad. This experimental period also allowed players like Matt Eastwick ’92 and George Leftwich ’92 to get important in-game experience in the Princeton offense.
The Tigers began the season with a home victory over Franklin and Marshall before beating Colgate 43–33 in a contest that set the then-NCAA record for the fewest combined points in a game.
“We were often shooting the ball as the shot clock was going off,” Mueller recalled. “If people aren’t making shots, it leads to those kinds of games.”
After winning over St. Joe’s, Princeton took on Lehigh, where Carril had coached for one season in the ’60s, and handed the Engineers a 54–47 loss.
The Tigers then faced road matchups against New Jersey foes Rutgers and 15th-ranked Seton Hall. Princeton had beaten Rutgers each of the three previous seasons but lost this season’s edition by six.
“That one stung a little bit, because that was a bit of a rivalry,” Scrabis remembered.
The Tigers then faced the Seton Hall. Scrabis considered the team’s junior year victory over the Pirates, a team laden with future pros, one of his “fondest memories.” The rematch, however, did not go well. Seton Hall won handily 64–46.
“Their defense was swarming,” Scrabis added. “We were just outplayed, and they were out for revenge after we beat them the previous year.”
Princeton then traveled to Atlanta to take part in the Cotton States Classic, where they would be facing Georgia and 16th-ranked South Carolina. After losing to Georgia in the first game, the Tigers pulled off a convincing upset against 16th-ranked South Carolina, winning 69–58.
“I remember how pumped Coach was,” Mueller said. “That was an eye-opener for us … that we can compete with bigger teams and bigger athletes.”
The Tigers struggled to maintain the momentum, losing their next game against Delaware before securing narrow home victories against Fordham and Muhlenberg. At the end of the non-conference schedule, the team had seen some successful moments but still had a lot to prove.
“We started out a lot stronger than I expected,” Scrabis said. “But then we lost to Delaware … there were some losses in there that showed that coming into league [play], we didn’t know what to expect.”
One bright spot, however, was the performance of the inexperienced underclassmen. Leftwich became an important ball handler for the team and excelled at breaking the press. Jerry Doyle '91 and Troy Hottenstein ’91 played well at the guard position too. Chris Marquardt ’92 excelled in the frontcourt and made the all-tournament team at the Cotton States Classic. Matt Eastwick started and played crucial minutes. Kit Mueller was a dominant scorer, rebounder, and passer.
“The freshman and sophomores played above their age,” Scrabis recalled.
Princeton began Ivy League play by beating Yale and Brown on the road. They then hosted Harvard. The Crimson’s defense was stout, and the Tigers lost 63–57.
“That was a big one,” Scrabis remembered. “It was rare that we lost at home.”
Princeton was able to rebound, knocking off Dartmouth 63–53 and beginning a string of eight consecutive league victories. This run brought the Tigers’ record to 18–5 (10–1 in-league), putting them in an excellent position to qualify for the NCAA tournament.
One particularly satisfying win during that run, Scrabis remembers, was the Tigers’ 60–49 victory at Cornell.
“Cornell is one of the hardest places to play … up until that time, I’d never won at Cornell,” he recalled. “Troy Hottenstein came off of the bench and hit some really big three-pointers … he was integral in winning that game.”
Despite the team’s success, the grind of the Ivy League competition was still a challenge. The Ivy League plays games on Friday and Saturday night so that athletes can focus on academics during the week, but this schedule often forces the team to travel until late in the morning on Saturdays.
“It’s a difficult task whether you win or lose, because you’re getting on a bus and you’re going to be traveling for a couple of hours to the next school,” Scrabis recalled.
One particularly long night Scrabis mentioned was the drive from Ithaca to Princeton.
“Coach Carril had a superstition that instead of staying in New York City to play Columbia the next day, we would ride the extra hour or so to sleep in our beds,” he explained. The team would often arrive back on campus at two or three in the morning.
“That’s one of the things I take tremendous pride in ... Ivy league athletes are asked to do so much … keep up with schoolwork, but also play a demanding schedule,” he added.
As the win streak got longer, the team was beginning to run away with the League title.
“It was ours to lose if you will, because we only had to win one of three games at the end,” Scrabis remembered. Clinching the title would not be as easy as it seemed.
The Tigers’ first opportunity to clinch was a matchup with Penn at the Palestra. It was a defensive battle, and the Tigers took a one-point lead into the final seconds, but a late Penn tip-in sealed the victory for the Quakers. The Tigers lost 43–42.
“It was a crushing moment because it looked like we were going to win the League,” Mueller remembered. “The [Penn fans] just emptied onto the court … you had to walk off of the floor through these fans going crazy because they just beat you.”
With several conference losses, the Tigers had not yet clinched the Ivy League title through 12 weeks. They would, however, have another chance to lock up the hardware in Hanover.
“We always had a tough time at Dartmouth,” Scrabis said. “You felt like you were playing in a terrible high school gym,” Mueller added. “Not a great atmosphere.”
The Tigers struggled to get things going offensively and lost 53–43.
“I remember my mother coming up to me after that game and letting me have it,” Scrabis remembered, laughing.
For their final game, the Tigers would have an opportunity to avenge their early-season loss to Harvard. A Princeton loss and a Dartmouth win would see the championship decided in a one-off playoff. A Tiger win would win them the League, and clinch them a spot in the NCAA tournament.
“Harvard played a matchup zone, which always gave us problems,” Scrabis said.
The coaches worked hard on preparing for the game in the hotel the night before, making many adjustments. According to Scrabis, the Saturday-morning shoot-around felt more like a practice.
“It was masterful coaching,” he said. “It made me more confident that Coach Carril was not going to let us lose this game.”
The Tigers came strong and shot efficiently. There was a sizable Princeton contingent in the crowd cheering them on. Princeton took a fairly comfortable lead in the second half and held it throughout the remainder of the game.
“Everyone was determined … we shot the lights out,” Scrabis recalled. “I started to tear up because I knew that we were going to win and that we … had reached the ultimate goal of winning the league,” he added.
The Tigers won 73–64, in what was their second-highest offensive point total of the season, and clinched the League title. It was Princeton’s first since 1984.
“I remember … my dad, who never cried, coming out of the stands crying and hugging [me],” Scrabis said. Later on, Scrabis was named the Ivy League Player of the Year. He and Mueller were both All-Ivy First Team selections.
Scrabis said he was relieved to finally be a champion.
“Coming into the tradition of Princeton basketball, you're expected to win the Ivy title, at least once while you're there,” Scrabis said.
Despite his personal accolades, he insists that the all-around team effort was what contributed most to the championship.
“There were certain parts of the year … where different guys stepped up and really, really contributed and made a difference,” he said.
The celebration of the victory was thrilling for the players.
“I was the last one into the locker room because I was being interviewed … my teammates picked me up and threw me in the shower,” Scrabis said, laughing. “We were all just through the roof because of the pressure, and my teammates knew how much it meant to me.”
Gearing up for the Big Dance
The team’s euphoric stupor could not last for long; they would soon have to begin preparation for the NCAA tournament, where they would likely play a high-seeded opponent.
“For an Ivy League athlete, getting to the NCAA tournament was really the prize,” Mueller said. “Certainly you’re going to try to win … but you didn’t really have the expectation of going in and winning.”
Next up was the selection show, where Princeton would find out their seeding and opponent for the NCAA tournament. The first matchup selected for the tournament would be the #1 versus #16 in the East region. Georgetown was selected as the #1 seed in the region, with a 26–4 record. The 19–7 Tigers flashed onto the screen as their opponents.
The Tigers would be taking on a legendary program that had won the national title as recently as 1984, and a star-studded squad including future NBA Hall-of-Famers Alonzo Mourning and Dikembe Mutombo. The Hoyas had thrashed several opponents on their way to both the regular-season and tournament titles in the Big East.
“We were coming off the high of winning the league, and then we found out we were playing the number one team in the country … who earlier in the day had just crushed Syracuse on TV,” Scrabis recalled. “The atmosphere was like a deflated balloon.”
Just like the players, Carril was not thrilled with the selection.
“I think we’re a billion-to-one to win the whole tournament,” he told the team. “To beat Georgetown, we’re only 450 million to one.”
Despite his dismay with the matchup, Carril used every tool in his arsenal to coach his team up for the game.
“I remember Coach Carril saying ‘we’re not just going to make a game of it, we’re going to win the game,’” Scrabis said.
Princeton big men like Kit Mueller took shots against a broom held by assistant coach Jan van Breda Kolff to mimic the height and reach of Alonzo Mourning and Dikembe Mutombo, who were 6’10” and 7’2,” respectively.
“When you have a coach holding a broom up, they’re basically telling you that you’re in trouble,” Mueller joked.
The Tigers’ starters also had a hard time in practice against the scout team, made up of Princeton’s bench, who mimicked the Hoyas’ press. The team ultimately discovered that they would have to throw over the press, rather than try and dribble through it.
“As you prepare for it, you treat it like any other game,” Carril wrote in his book. “We took the psychology out of it, the idea that every team was superior … We just played the game.”
The Tigers would have to play quite the game to have a shot against the superstar Hoyas.
The teams traveled to Providence, Rhode Island for the first-round matchup.
“I think it worked to our advantage that we were getting on a bus and driving to New England again,” Scrabis remarked. The Tigers practiced in Brown’s gym before the game, which was a familiar destination in League play.
“It was kind of surreal for me,” Mueller recalled. “I had these flashes of … going into this huge arena … I was impressed with everything.” The Providence Civic Center, where the game was to be played, had twice the capacity of Jadwin Gym. “You felt like … you [were] stepping into big-time basketball,” he added.
Needless to say, the national media was not expecting a close contest. Dick Vitale, who was a studio commentator for ESPN, remarked before the game that he would wear a cheerleaders’ outfit to the Tigers’ next game should they pull off the upset, signaling his confidence in the Georgetown squad. Princeton was a 23-point underdog.
Georgetown’s coaching staff was a little bit more concerned about the Tigers’ chances.
“I remember being scared to death,” Georgetown assistant coach Craig Esherick told Sports Illustrated. “You can tell everybody in five days of practice, ‘Watch the backdoor, watch the backdoor.’ But they do a bunch of stuff in their early offense to get you out of thinking about watching the backdoor.”
“When you were playing Carril, it didn’t matter how good you were. The style of play scared the crap out of you,” Esherick added.
The Tigers were also to be feared on the defensive end, having led the country in scoring defense by only allowing 53 points per game on average.
Coach Thompson was also insistent that the Hoyas would need to be on their game to win. He was familiar with Carril’s style since his son had played for Carril during the previous season.
“I think it’s a little shocking that we got away with what we did, given the preparation they must have had,” Mueller said.
Thompson (left) and Carril exchanged pleasantries before the game. Carril was known for wearing sweaters, whereas Thompson was known for his trademark towel, which he kept slung over his shoulder during games. Courtesy of Mudd Library.
Even though Carril was often pessimistic about his team’s chances, he rejected Vitale and others’ characterization that Princeton’s status as a small Ivy League program made victory impossible.
“In my book, there’s no such thing as an Ivy League player,” he wrote. “When you come out of that locker room and step across that white line, you are basketball players — period.”
No matter what Carril said, however, Princeton barely looked like a college basketball team when they stepped on the court next to the Hoyas. Georgetown had five future NBA players on their roster; the Tigers had zero. Georgetown also had five players standing 6’9” or taller; the Tigers’ tallest player was 6’8.” The Princeton underclassmen had gotten 50s-style flat-top haircuts before the game which added to their boyish appearance. Georgetown had a somewhat sleeker look.
“We had warm-up sweats that were as tight as the third grade white polyester suit my mother made me,” Jim Lane ’92 told Sports Illustrated. “Georgetown had a Nike contract with breakaway pants. We had these shooting shirts where the sleeves only made it three-quarters of the way down our arms. They weighed like 20 pounds … they really scratched my nipples.”
After the Tiger’s starters labored to remove their warmups, it was time for tip-off.
“It’s a David and Goliath matchup if there ever was one here tonight,” ESPN’s play-by-play commentator for the game, Mike Gorman, remarked. “It’s hard to imagine anyone playing better [than Georgetown] in the country right now.”
Taking on the Hoyas
The Tigers’ first shot of the game, a Scrabis layup, was blocked.
“I remember my first shot getting blocked by Mourning, and thinking ‘oh boy, is this how it’s going to be?’” Scrabis recalled.
However, Princeton remained patient, and Mueller was able to orchestrate the offense from the high post. With a hook shot over Mourning, Mueller scored the first basket of the game. Scrabis was able to get to the basket twice more, and Mourning goaltended on both shots. The Tigers took a 6–2 lead.
“We managed to stay in the game early against Georgetown, and with every minute … your confidence grows and you see you’re going to be okay,” Carril wrote.
The Tigers were able to draw Mourning away from the basket early on, making the Hoyas vulnerable to backdoor cuts.
“They were playing right into our hands,” Scrabis noted.
The early success helped to settle the team’s nerves. Although Mourning would score more effectively in the paint later in the game, the Tigers’ 1-2-2 zone confused Georgetown and forced them into taking more outside shots than they would have liked to. The game was also being played at Princeton’s preferred pace.
“The longer we stayed in the game, the more pressure that put on Georgetown,” Carril recalled in his book.
The Tigers’ practice was paying off, and they were able to handle Georgetown’s press effectively. Leftwich was an especially effective ball handler.
“It’s hard to not talk about what he did … to take care of the ball against future NBA guys as a freshman,” Mueller said. “It was incredible.”
Mueller was finding success against Mourning, even when the Hoyas’ star got the ball inside. “[Mueller] was so strong, no one could push him around, so he could guard much taller guys down low,” Carril wrote.
Mueller was also efficient on offense. “One of the fundamental aspects of the [Princeton] offense is … a big guy who can step away from the basket and make shots and passes,” Scrabis explained. “That worked to our advantage against Georgetown.”
Kit Mueller drives against a Georgetown defender. Courtesy of Princeton Alumni Weekly.
Matt Lapin, who had considered quitting the team earlier in the season due to a shooting slump, also shined brightly for the Tigers in the first half, scoring a number of key buckets.
“The ball was bouncing our way, and the crowd started to get into it,” Scrabis said.
When the buzzer sounded for halftime, the Tigers led 29–21.
“I guess ‘speechless’ would be the best way to describe us here,” John Saunders said on ESPN’s halftime show. “The only thing I can say, Dick, is that the head of the Princeton cheerleading squad just called … and wanted to know what size tutu you wear.”
The mood in the Tigers’ locker room was not nearly as jovial, despite their surprising lead.
“I don’t think anyone knew how to react, even the coaches, because we weren’t expecting to be in this situation,” Scrabis said. “But the pressure [didn’t] bother us.”
“I felt a little strange … I wasn’t sure it was reality,” Mueller added. “I think we had watched enough basketball that nobody was in there thinking, ‘oh we’ve got this in the bag.’”
A Jerry Doyle basket gave the Tigers a 31–21 lead early in the second half.
“Us coming out and scoring immediately and getting the crowd back into it was a very big moment,” Scrabis said. “Now you could see the concern in Georgetown’s faces.”
Shortly after, however, Doyle picked up his fourth foul and had to head to the bench. The offense sorely missed his ball-handling ability and faltered as a result. The Tigers had a hard time adapting to the Hoyas’ halftime adjustments, too and saw their backdoor cut opportunities limited.
“Coach Thompson juggled the lineup … they were smaller, more athletic, and better shooters,” Scrabis recalled. “They also didn’t let me get as many open looks.”
At the same time, Mourning began to find more success on the offensive side of the ball for the Hoyas. Mourning shot well from the free-throw line, and he scored eight points in the paint early in the half, allowing Georgetown to mount a steady comeback.
“He was the difference-maker,” Scrabis remarked. “He put the team on his back … we couldn’t stop him.”
The Tigers also struggled to rebound the ball, and during one stretch, the Hoyas grabbed 17 out of 18 rebounds. Georgetown took hold of its first lead with 10:25 remaining in the game, at a score of 39–37.
“We were just hanging on at some points and not letting them run away,” Scrabis said.
“There was some part of all of us that was thinking, here’s where the underdog gets overtaken and blown out,” Mueller added. “I kept waiting … and it just didn’t happen.”
The upstart Tigers refused to fold and took a 45–43 lead with under five minutes remaining thanks to a George Leftwich backdoor cut and layup. With 1:55 to go, another Jerry Doyle bucket gave Princeton a 49–47 lead.
“That’s when you think, wow, we can really do this,” Mueller said.
“The scoreboard showing a narrow Princeton lead late in the second half.” Joe Shlabotnik / CC BY 2.0
Then, moments later, two Mourning free throws knotted the game at 49 apiece. Scrabis fouled him on the next possession, and another Mourning free throw gave the Hoyas a 50–49 lead. With 15 seconds left, the Tigers had the ball and a chance to win the game.
In the huddle, Scrabis called his own number, and Carril drew up a play: Mueller would set an on-ball screen for Scrabis at the top of the key, and Scrabis would drive around and find the open shot.
“I knew that most likely the ball was coming to me, and I wanted the ball,” Scrabis recalled.
“We went to our leader,” Mueller added. “Bobby was the guy who would always take those shots, and he would make those shots.”
With seven seconds remaining, Scrabis drove around the screen. “I come off of Kit’s screen, and I don’t see Alonzo Mourning,” he said. “So I think, okay, I’m going to get an open look.”
He pulled up to shoot at the three-point line.
It was then that Scrabis’ shot met the towering frame of Mourning, whose outstretched arm seemingly materialized right in front of the ball. Mourning had spent most of the game in the paint during ball screens, but on this occasion, he ventured towards Scrabis and swatted his shot out of the air. The ball tumbled towards the sideline, and a number of players lunged towards it.
“I remember a crashing sound … the crowd was screaming, and everyone’s going for that loose ball,” Mueller said.
Sam Jefferson of Georgetown collected the ball only to find that his foot was out of bounds.
“I was thinking, good, we’re going to piece it together here,” Scrabis said.
There was now just one second remaining on the clock for the Tigers to score a winning basket. Princeton was inbounding from the sideline.
Kit Mueller was able to sneakily position himself behind Mourning. There was nobody between Mueller and the basket, meaning a lob pass was available.
Mueller was able to position himself in an advantageous position for the inbound. Courtesy of Mudd Library.
“The ref was about to hand the ball to Matt [Lapin],” Scrabis described. “He blows the whistle quickly because the Georgetown bench is shouting ‘hey, hey, hey’ ... and they make the adjustment.”
The ball was then thrown in to Mueller, who was now in front of Mourning.
“We ended up getting a turnaround jumper against Alonzo Mourning, which is kind of comical,” he remembered.
Mourning met him at the apex of his shot and came away with the game-winning block. The clock expired, and Georgetown survived.
Some have said over the years that Mourning fouled Mueller on the final shot. Mueller insists that it was a clean play.
“[Mourning] tipped it … he certainly didn’t get a full block on it,” Mueller claimed.
Immediately after the game, the team was sullen, thinking over all of the different ways in which they might have won the game.
“I was really upset,” Mueller remembered. “I couldn’t keep [Mourning] off of the boards … that still hurts a little bit, because I prided myself on being a good rebounder and a tough player. If I could have kept him off of the boards a couple of times late in the game, we probably would have won.”
Scrabis expressed a similar sentiment.
“You’re gonna run it through your head … how many opportunities we had to win the game,” he explained. “I was an 87 percent foul shooter, and I missed a foul shot in that game … there were a couple of things that we could have done differently.”
As a senior, the loss hit Scrabis harder than some of the underclassmen.
“It’s such a bittersweet memory for me … it really sunk in that my career was over, more than anything else,” he said.
Dick Vitale sported a makeshift Princeton sweater in the studio after the game. Courtesy of Mudd Library.
How a near-upset changed sports history
Despite the loss, the Tigers’ effort left the college sports world in shock.
“That would have been the greatest upset in the history of the NCAA tournament,” Vitale said on the postgame show.
While Princeton’s performance was remarkable, it wasn’t necessarily unique; the massive audience it attracted magnified its impact. The night before, #16 seed East Tennessee State had played a close game with #1 seed Oklahoma, but because the game was broadcasted on tape-delay at 1:30 AM, ESPN did not attract ratings that it would typically get for such a competitive game. Former ESPN programming executive Tom Odjakjian said he was able to convince his boss to show the Princeton-Georgetown game live in the off-chance that the tournament had another close #1 versus #16 matchup.
The risk ESPN’s programming team took in showing the game paid off. The Princeton-Georgetown game saw about 10 times as many viewers as the Oklahoma-East Tennessee State game from the previous night.
“When Princeton went up by double digits, it was beyond amazing. For ESPN, it was bordering on historic. This was becoming destination TV,” John Saunders told Sports Illustrated.
Previously, big networks had not carried some first round games, meaning that the upsets of the first round often weren’t available to large swaths of the nation. Princeton’s performance helped change that; later in 1989, CBS inked a deal to carry the entire tournament. The new broadcasting deal made March Madness a true national phenomenon and revolutionized the way Americans watched college basketball.
The following year, the Tigers won the Ivy League again, and endured another close loss in the NCAA tournament, this time to Arkansas. The ratings for this game exceeded those from the Tigers’ near-upset over the Hoyas.
“That was all because of Princeton-Georgetown,” John Saunders told Sports Illustrated. “[The game] changed the way people watched the NCAA tournament. They weren’t just watching their team. They were looking for the upset.”
Despite the Tigers’ performance in 1989, and the impact it had on television rights, the push to remove some automatic bids was still ongoing.
“I took great offense to that, because we competed with big Division I schools … we beat South Carolina earlier in the year,” Scrabis said. “We had every right to be there.”
Scrabis wasn’t the only one with strong feelings about preserving the phenomenon that the Tigers had fostered. One month after the Georgetown game, Ivy League Executive Director Jeff Orleans, who barely made it to Providence for the game due to being swamped in his work lobbying the NCAA to keep automatic bids for all conferences, wrote a passionate letter to the NCAA basketball committee on the impact of the game.
“The press coverage [of Princeton-Georgetown] demonstrates that wide segments of the public, many with deep loyalties to college basketball and to the tournament structure, will not be easily satisfied if conferences which they care about or respect are excluded from the Tournament under any format,” Orleans wrote. “I believe that is the real message of Princeton’s evening in Providence: a tournament that explicitly invites conference champions as such ought to invite all of them absent clear, compelling and long-term reasons to exclude particular ones.”
The NCAA heeded his words and the arguments of other small-conference commissioners. To resolve the ongoing conflict about smaller conferences still receiving automatic bids, big and small schools were able to reach a compromise. The tournament was expanded to include play-in games, so that small conferences could play in the tournament, and big conferences would have room for more at-large bids.
“The best part of the tournament is the first [round]. That’s the most exciting, that’s what everyone tunes in for,” Scrabis said. “That is a legacy of that game … it gives future players the opportunity to dream … and to pull off what nobody’s expecting.”
Although they recognize the influence their performance had on college basketball, players from the 1988-89 squad will always remember their legacy as more than just “saving the tournament.”
“It strengthened the expectations for Princeton and the players in the program,” Scrabis said. “You need to win the league, and you need to be competitive against big schools.”
“I feel like our team … played a role in getting some of the great players that played for Princeton later in the 90s,” Mueller added. “That’s what’s more important to me.”
The Tigers would go on to qualify for three more consecutive tournaments from 1990-92, winning the Ivy League each time. Mueller won Ivy League Player of the Year in both his junior and senior seasons. Pete Carril would coach the Tigers through the end of the 1996 season, when his team pulled off a magical victory over defending champions UCLA in the NCAA tournament. Bill Carmody led the Tigers to a 92–25 record from 1996-2000, with teams loaded with talented players like Sydney Johnson ’97, Steve Goodrich ’98, and Brian Earl ’99, all of whom won Ivy League Player of the Year in their senior seasons.
The decade following the Georgetown loss was arguably the most successful in program history. While it’s impossible to know the impact that the game had on recruiting, one thing is for sure: the 1988-89 team kicked off a transformation that would return the Tigers to their powerhouse status in the Ivy League.
“After the game, I said, ‘if people are talking about this 10 years from now, that would give me tremendous pride,’” Scrabis recalled.
“Here we are, 32 years since then, and we're still talking about it.”
Read the rest of our ‘Moments in March’ series here.