A Princeton Passer’s Skills Recall a Departed Coach’s Legacy

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Open passing lanes are not only a historical staple of Princeton’s basketball program, but a modern necessity.

It was a sharp, simple bounce pass that set up the winning basket in one of the greatest upsets in N.C.A.A. tournament history: Steve Goodrich’s delivery to Gabe Lewullis as Princeton upended U.C.L.A. in 1996.

And it is the consistently crisp passing of Tosan Evbuomwan that helped trample opponents and lift the Tigers into this year’s tournament — for the first time since 2017 — just seven months after the death of the Hall of Fame coach Pete Carril.

Coach Mitch Henderson marveled about Evbuomwan’s passing ability before the season, saying that he doesn’t expect to see a better passer playing basketball for Princeton in the next 50 years.

“He’s not a prototypical Princeton center,” Henderson said on Wednesday while preparing to face Arizona on Thursday afternoon in the first round of the N.C.A.A. tournament. The coach was referring to Evbuomwan’s court vision and his agility and dexterity, which are unusual for a 6-foot-8 big man, but he could have been talking about more.

A senior, Evbuomwan is from Newcastle, England, and didn’t begin playing basketball seriously, he said, until he was 16. He wears pink shoes and the No. 20 in honor of his mother, Michelle, who died of breast cancer in 2012 and whose birthday was March 20.

His parents met in Nigeria, where Michelle was a pilot and his father, Isaac, was a doctor. Though Tosan is unclear on many of the details, because it happened before his birth, his mother was once awarded the honor of flying Nelson Mandela, the former president of South Africa, around the country during a tour of Nigeria.

“She didn’t tell me a whole lot — she didn’t like to talk about herself,” Evbuomwan said after Princeton’s practice on Wednesday. “She met my dad when she was flying for the Red Cross.”

His father watched Evbuomwan earn the Ivy League Tournament’s Most Oustanding Player Award last week while averaging 21 points per game and will be in the Golden 1 Center stands for his N.C.A.A. tournament debut. So, too, will be 30 or 40 Princeton basketball alumni carrying with them the spirit of Carril.

The Tigers are wearing bow-tie patches on their jerseys this season to honor Carril’s memory, and they drew an N.C.A.A. assignment in the city in which Carril continued his coaching — as an assistant for the N.B.A.’s Sacramento Kings — after retiring from Princeton in 1996 following 30 years there and designing the “Princeton Offense.”

Not only is there a triangular relationship among Princeton, Carril and Sacramento, but U.C.L.A. will be in the arena as well, playing U.N.C.-Asheville a few hours after Princeton tangles with Arizona.

Lines blurred in Sacramento on Wednesday, from memories to legacy, past to present, so many strong threads poignantly stitching together a dash of basketball history with a dose of Tiger stripes.

“There are a lot of touch points all around,” Goodrich, the man who bounced the most famous and important pass in Princeton history, said in a telephone interview Wednesday. “Coach and the people he influenced.”

Goodrich is a banker who, after attending U.C.L.A.’s Anderson School of Management, now lives and works in Southern California, very close to the university.

Especially at this time of year, Goodrich said, he still hears about his role in bringing down the Bruins, “both from friends and enemies of U.C.L.A.” He will be among the large contingent of former players sitting in the Princeton alumni section cheering for another titanic upset. And as he does, he will admire the court sense of another slick passer in a long Princeton line of them.

“He’s so calm and in control,” Goodrich said of Evbuomwan. “Sometimes he’s almost laconic. He’s really good at keeping his head up and seeing what’s going on. There’s something about someone who plays unhurried.”

Carril, a regular at Princeton practices in recent years before his death, “grew to really, really like Tosan,” said Brett MacConnell, the team’s associate head coach and recruiting coordinator.

“I actually get emotional thinking about it,” MacConnell said. “Coach Carril really valued unselfish basketball and making your teammates better. And that’s Tosan to a T on the court and off the court. Coach Carril loved passers. And the other thing is, Coach Carril really believed in getting a little better every day. And that’s him.”

Evbuomwan focused more on soccer when he was younger and guesses that it helped him with his court vision and his passing. He also played rugby, cricket and tennis and ran track.

“Pretty much every sport minus the American ones,” he said, smiling. But eventually, he fell in love with basketball and represented Britain on its under-18 team at the FIBA Europe championships in 2018 and 2019.

It was MacConnell who made Princeton’s first personal contact with Evbuomwan in England after the player’s coach, Ian Macleod, sent a mass email to college coaches.

Evbuomwan lost his sophomore season to the coronavirus when the Ivy League shut down its sports completely. And, because the Ivy League does not allow for eligibility beyond four years, he will finish his Princeton career in the N.C.A.A. tournament. He could transfer to another program, as he retains one more year of college eligibility. Most likely, though, he will be playing professionally at this time next year.

“We’ve had probably every N.B.A. team either reach out or come see us play, and I know the Ivy League tournament was a big showcase for him,” MacConnell said. “And we expect that this week will be the same.”

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