Long road back
Jimmy Tillette certainly looks the part. When he paces the sideline in a wide-collared jacket with carefully side-parted hair and round spectacles, he's a dead ringer for a stereotypical Ivy League professor.
And though he sprinkles his speech with quotes by French philosophers
and Plato, Samford's 56-year-old head coach is no blue-state academic.
That slight dewy tinge to his voice gives him away as a Louisiana boy,
as do his sharp facial features. He did go to college at Holy Cross,
but it was the one in New Orleans.
Tillette never marched in Princeton's annual alumni P-rade, never sang
"Old Nassau," never spent a day as an assistant on Pete Carril's
bench. He has no ties, blood or otherwise, to the seemingly ancient
lineage of the Princeton system, but he's used it for 149 wins and two
conference titles over the past decade. Even though he's a bit more
bayou blues than "Tiger Rag," he's installed one of the country's most
successful implementations of the Princeton style.
It all started a decade ago, when Tillette, then a Samford assistant
and an outspoken proponent of the screen-and-grind motion offense,
spent his postseason downtime hitting the books. The Bulldogs hadn't
advanced beyond the first round of their conference tournament (they
were TAAC members at the time), and Tillette was searching for new
"I'm the only coach in Alabama who doesn't play golf," Tillette said.
"I pick a team to study every spring, and that spring it was
Princeton. After I figured it out and started to unravel it, I became
convinced that we needed to do something like that less grind, more
But Tillette wasn't the only coach trying to unravel the team-first
slowdown system. The 13th-seeded Tigers had just dropped a devastating
back-door play on No. 4 seed (and defending national champ) UCLA to seal a 43-41 NCAA first-round shocker.
Orange and black was suddenly all the rage, and a lot of mid-major schools with undersized and under-athletic squads were looking for a quick and easy piece of the Princeton action.
"It's astonishing how many calls they got," Tillette said. "Coaches
essentially were saying, 'I played golf every day this summer, I
didn't do any work, would you mind sharing your secrets?' Carril used
to just hang the phone up on them. He'd just curse and hang up."
In order to gain access and entry to the secret club, Tillette made a
pilgrimage to New Jersey, where he had to complete a sort of Princeton
"I was really the only outsider allowed in," he said. "[Current
Princeton head coach] Joe Scott told me later -- we're good friends
now -- that he counseled [then-Princeton head coach] Billy Carmody
against it. He said, 'Don't let this guy in, don't call this guy, don't give him an audience.'
"I took literally 100 pages of notes and made 25 or 30 transparencies. I went up to Princeton like a geek bearing gifts. I showed Billy I'd done my homework, and they were very nice to me. They told me, 'You have this part right,' and 'No, this is wrong.' Then I went back, watched them practice. I'd come into the office, spend six or eight hours a day studying tape, and on the [game clock] only 10 minutes had elapsed. More than anything else, I put a lot of time into it."
Tillette used 1997-98, his first season as head coach, to give Tigerball a try. While it didn't produce any immediate smash hits, the groundwork was laid for a decade of Samford slow jams.
"I literally had the youngest team in the United States my first year," Tillette said. "One senior, five sophomores, and the rest freshmen
so I thought that would be a good time to implement it.
And we struggled that first year in our initial interpretation, but we had success with it and have adapted it over the years. The fullest transition was when we went away from man-to-man defense two years ago
and went to a matchup zone. So it's a continual work in progress."
Last season's version of "Southern-Fried Princeton" won 20 contests against 11 losses, coming up short against Murray State in the OVC title game. The Bulldogs shot a league-leading 48 percent from the
floor and 39.7 percent from 3, and featured the ninth-most efficient offense in the land (1.103 points per possession). Tillette recently signed an extension that will keep him on the Samford sideline until
2013, and he remains the only head coach in D-I to build his own Princeton-style system from scratch.
"There's a part of this, and I understand this now as a Princeton[-style] coach, that you could share the whole system with people and say, 'OK, now just go teach it,'" Tillette said. "Even though it takes players a year to fully
grasp it, it has to be simple enough for them to pick up. What you're aiming for is simplicity of the far side of complexity."
Good signs: Last season, Jacksonville State (remember, that's Alabama, not Florida) forged the biggest single-season turnaround in all of Division I, winning nine more games than they had in the previous
campaign. The Gamecocks transformed a 7-22 (2-14 OVC) disaster into a 16-13 (12-8 OVC) accomplishment. After not qualifying for the conference tournament two seasons ago, JSU received a campus-site home game as a No. 4 seed, and crushed defending league champions Eastern
Kentucky 86-59 before falling by five at NCAA-bound Murray State.
"It was just an oddball year," coach Mike LaPlante said of the disastrous 2004-05 season. "We'd won 20, 14 and 16 games previously, and then that huge down year. Everything that could happen happened injuries, guys who weren't willing to do it the right way, guys with playing time issues, what have you. We finished that year with six players. But they were good players the big turnaround happened with the guys who experienced that tough season and fought through the adversity. That core was still together."
That battle-tested core formed the foundation for a small, quick team that led the league in steals (8.3 per game) and ranked among the nation's best 3-point bombers. JSU shot 38.9 percent from long distance,
good enough for 20th in D-I. And where LaPlante had to conserve energy due to all the empty seats on his bench in 2004-05, last year's squad played fast, free and flexible.
"We started the year really trying to up-tempo it," LaPlante said. "As our season progressed, our team showed they could also square up against you in a half-court game. But our main focus is to play
up-tempo as much as possible, and that's the type of players we've recruited. But now we've got some huge shoes to fill."
LaPlante lost his three top guards to graduation, but the good news in Jacksonville is that JSU will have their go-to frontcourt guy back as a senior. Courtney Bradley is a 6-foot-5, 215-pound greyhound who was busy
earning Mississippi juco player of the year honors while JSU was trudging through its seven-win season. Bradley makes the Gamecocks rock, leading the team with 15.3 ppg and 7.6 rpg last season, notching
seven triple-doubles in the process.
"No doubt he had a major impact for us," LaPlante said. "We like to play four guards, so he's our undersized four so we rely on him to be a solid inside-outside guy. And by the year's end, he was definitely an all-conference caliber player."
Red flag: There are rebuilding projects, and then there's Murray State. The OVC titleholders went 24-7 last year on the strength of unselfish play and a nationally ranked defense, but there will be at least 10 new names on the roster sheet this November. Racers? More like erasers.
On March 23, before the tournament was over, head coach Mick Cronin left for the open Cincinnati job. Then, after five seniors exited, incoming hire Billy Kennedy doled out some harsh justice. Kennedy dismissed three players for various offenses and ineligibilities -- a list that included last year's starting shooting
guard Trey Pearson (10.3 ppg). Also, Justin Orr, a 6-6 forward who averaged 8.9 ppg a season ago, elected to transfer to Ohio University.
No need to call a mass audition for walk-ons, though. The 2006-07 Racers have a strong link to the past with 6-5 Shawn Witherspoon, who led last year's balanced scoring attack with a relatively modest 10.4
ppg. Murray will also benefit from former Big South member Birmingham-Southern's sudden descent into D-III, as two of the Panthers' top scorers (small forward Dwayne Paul and big guard Ed Horton, 19.5 combined ppg in 2005-06) were granted immediate transfers by the NCAA and won't have to sit out a year.
Going into next season, the Racers' most pressing issues will have to do with skilled size -- lucky for them, that's something you can get away with not having in this conference. But if MSU is going to defend its league crown, that likely means the rest of the OVC will have to play at a diminished level. With improving programs elsewhere in the league, that's not very likely.
Safe bet: Murray certainly isn't the only team with questions. Due to a conference-wide outbreak in senioritis (as well as isolated cases of transferitis), the conference will have a vastly different look this
season. None of the league's groups of 2005-06 starters comes back intact. Of the 12 members of the OVC's first and second teams (there were a couple of ties in the voting), only two are returning:
first-teamer Witherspoon and second-team forward Clarence Matthews of Tennessee State (13.7 ppg, 8.5 rpg). Only 10 double-figure scorers return for 2006-07 over the entire 11-team league.
Most of the stability can be found in Murray State's old shadow. Samford will make its title run with four returning starters, and while J. Robert Merritt and his 17.3 ppg are gone, the Bulldogs' system-ball means that drastic changes won't be necessary. Tennessee Tech will also sport a similar look. Despite losing three solid
contributors from a 19-12 squad, the Golden Eagles return 64 percent of their scoring, a lot of which was gained during quality minutes from a solid core of juniors.
So a year removed from Murray and Samford's battle for the top spot, it's fairly safe to assume that the OVC will feature another two-horse race his season. Just don't be surprised if there are no schools with
horse mascots involved.
Worth watching: Tennessee Tech became a sentimental favorite of many in the college hoops community last season. Mike Sutton, the OVC head coach of the year in 2005, was struck with the paralyzing nerve disorder Guillain-Barre Syndrome in April 2005. During much of his extended hospital stay, he was only able to communicate by blinking his eyes. Doctors removed Sutton from a ventilator in the summer and sent him home in the fall, and the coach was able to attend games and practices in a motorized wheelchair. Assistant Steve Payne took over the sideline duties, but he was quick to tell people who was still
really running the team.
The Golden Eagles converted Sutton's inspiration into 13 league wins and a third-place finish, highlighted by two six-game winning streaks. However, sloppy ballhandling did this team in -- they were ninth in
the OVC in turnover rate with 21.9 percent of their possessions ending empty, and finished dead last in the conference with a 0.8 team assist-to-turnover ratio. Their 73-66 semifinal exit against Samford
was a painful microcosm of their season: they dominated play and held a 19-rebound advantage, but a negative-10 turnover margin proved fatal.
It's a well-known fact that basketballs don't have actual handles (unlike those oversized kangaroo bouncy-balls for kids), but it's up to the Golden Eagles to find them this season. If they can, the Golden
Eagles will do their courageous coach proud and return to their early-decade form, when 20-win campaigns were common in Cookeville.
Things to watch
Austin Peay: The Governors routinely clicked off 20-victory seasons and NCAA appearances in the early part of this decade, but they've
been mired in the middle for the past two years. Head coach Dave Loos hopes that a couple of prep stars from 2005 Tennessee Class 3A champion Ridgeway will provide some sparks in the years ahead: 6-6
power forward Ernest Fields and 6-3 shooting guard Wesley Channels.
Eastern Illinois: Last year's 6-21 Panthers featured the least-potent offense in the OVC, only scoring an average of 60.8 points in league
games (59.2 PF for the season). Then they lost their single double-figure scorer (forward Josh Gomes, 15.1 ppg) to graduation. On top of all that, there's now a cha-cha line out of Charleston, as three players have elected to transfer elsewhere.
Eastern Kentucky: Jeff Neubauer took over for UMass-bound Travis Ford, and his Colonels were extremely well-behaved last season. EKU was second in the entire country in fouls taken per game, with 13.8. Unfortunately, other teams simply went around them or over them, forcing Eastern into an OVC-worst (and eighth-worst nationally) defensive efficiency: 1.093 points allowed per possession.
Jacksonville State: Walker Russell (14.0 ppg, 6.8 apg) capably paced the Gamecocks' massive turnaround, but he's aged out. LaPlante acquired the services of Alabamian point guard Will Ginn, who earned second-team junior college All-American honors with a dazzling 10.67 dimes per contest, most among juco point guards nationally. Either he or sophomore Deandrea Bray will take over the reins at the one. If Bray can win the job, he's guaranteed to become a JSU legend: He's 5-4, and can slam.
Morehead State: The Eagles won a total of three OVC games last year, and that's how many things Morehead fans have to be excited about in 2005-06: (1.) the return of leading scorer and rebounder Shaun Williams (16.4 ppg, 6.4 rpg), (2.) MSU's snazzy new logo, and (3.) their new head coach, former Middle Tennessee assistant Donnie Tyndall.
Murray State: The Racers may be one of the blankest slates in D-I right now, but they'll still be raising an OVC championship banner this November to remind their fans of an unforgettable year. Murray won 14 of its last 15 league games, and was within a couple of buckets of defending national champ North Carolina for the final 10 minutes of their first-round NCAA contest, which they lost 69-65.
Samford: Which Bulldog do you guard? Nobody in their regular eight-man rotation shot worse than 44 percent from the floor last season. And as a team, they averaged 1.2 points per shot, which was good enough for third in the land.
Southeast Missouri: Visitors to the Show Me Center weren't shown very much last season, as SEMO ended with a 7-20 record (4-16 OVC). Even a
surprise 63-52 win over Samford in the season's final week wasn't enough to save Gary Garner's job. Now, former Tennessee assistant Scott Edgar will try his hand at rebuilding the Redhawks.
Tennessee-Martin: Lost in Jacksonville State's feel-good story was the improvement of the Skyhawks, who followed a 6-21 record in 2004-05 with a 13-15 mark. That seven-game improvement included a 69-62 BracketBusters victory at Evansville, one of the few instances last year where the Ohio Valley outclassed the Missouri Valley.
Tennessee State: Few schools were impacted as much by the D1 Scheduling scandal as Tennessee State. The OVC hired a third-party investigator to look into dealings with a scheduling company tied to Los Angeles City College coach Mike Miller -- the company netted
$35,000 for brokering two games with Iowa State, and three of LACC's former players were on TSU's roster last season (including Matthews). The probe has overshadowed the program all summer -- the Tigers would rather folks focus on the five wins in their last six games to close last year.
Tennessee Tech: The Golden Eagles won 13 OVC games and finished with an above-average 135 RPI, but were perhaps the mirror opposite of Eastern
Kentucky. TTU fouled at a rate (22.3 fpg) that would make Rasheed Wallace blush. Only five teams fouled more often, making "two shots" Cookeville's hottest catch phrase.
Our resident bracketologist, Joe Lunardi, likes Samford's slow tempo in the OVC. He has the Bulldogs in as the OVC's rep as a No. 14 seed.
* -- NCAA Tournament
Only two of the OVC's top 15 scorers from a year ago are slated to return this season.
Kyle Whelliston is the founder of midmajority.com and is a a regular contributor to ESPN.com.