By Paul M. Banks
Georgetown is showing up in brackets everywhere as a favorite to win their region. They have a perfect balance: a strong interior complementing a great perimeter game. Making their offensive firepower even more potent is the system they utilize, the Princeton offense. In their first round blowout of Villanova in the Big East tournament, you saw them work it to perfection. The Hoyas overcame a zero point outing from their star big man Roy Hibbert and set a school record for threes while shooting a ridiculously high percentage. How did they did do it? With excellent baseline passes setting up proper spacing for the release on their jump shots. They lulled the Wildcats to sleep with excessive rotation and caught their defense off guard all day. Announcer Bill Raftery (he of the â€œSEND IT IN JEROMEâ€ fame) accurately pointed out, â€œThe ball was humming, Pete Carril would be proud.â€ Later, of course Raftery screamed â€œONIONS!!!â€ And â€œAttacking the TIN!!!â€ This is why his enthusiasm for color commentary is a million times better than Dick Vitaleâ€™s, despite him having just a fraction of Dickie Vâ€™s popularity. This past November, I had a chat about the system with one of its gurus, Northwestern head coach Bill Carmody:
PMB: The famous Princeton offense, give me the gist of itâ€¦
BC: It gets a little too much attention; I think itâ€™s basically the ball moves and the players all move. Thereâ€™s no number system, youâ€™re a one guard or a two guard; the players move as the ball moves. When it works, itâ€™s nice to watch. I think itâ€™s tough to scout. And a fun way to play.
PMB: So there really arenâ€™t that many special intricacies; itâ€™s not that complex?
BC: I donâ€™t mind people talking like that, but two of our freshmen have come into four or five practices, and they picked it up pretty quickly. If youâ€™re a basketball player, itâ€™s easy for you; itâ€™s rather intuitive.
Yoda of the Hardwood
The founder of the system is the legendary Pete Carril. His Princeton squad defeated defending national champion UCLA in March 1996 by a score of 43-41 in what is considered one of the greatest upsets of all time. Carril, whose famous quote was â€œthe smart take from the strong,â€ was an assistant coach for the Sacramento Kings for 10 years until his retirement in 2006. When Rick Adelman became Sacramento’s head coach before the 1998-1999 season, Carril helped Adelman install the Princeton offense and oversaw the Kings’ development into one of the NBA’s best offensive teams. With the help of stars like Chris Webber, Peja StojakoviÄ‡, Brad Miller, Jason Williams, and Mike Bibby, Carril showed that the Princeton offense could function in the NBA. Adelman has also brought it to the Houston Rockets. You may have heard that they had a little winning streak recently! Versions of the system have been utilized by the New Orleans Hornets, Washington Wizards, and New Jersey Nets.
When Street and Smith ranked the best collegiate programs of all time in 2005, Princeton was #19. This is elaborated on in the essay â€œBack cut, bounce pass, lay-upâ€ by Daily Princetonian writer David Baumgarten. The author also described Carril as a â€œYoda of a manâ€ before summating the system thusly: â€œits beauty stems from a philosophy of read and react principles rather than set plays. Over the years he incorporated various elements: the high-post center, the low-post screen, the dribble handoff and, of course, the backdoor cut.â€ Other journalists have also called Carril the basketball Yoda.
If Carril is the Yoda of this â€œforce,â€ then Carmody is the Obi-Wan Kenobi because Carmody succeeded the legend at Princeton after spending 14 years learning the system under him as an assistant. During his four-year tenure as head coach, Carmody guided the Tigers to an overall record of 92-25 (.786) and an Ivy League mark of 50-6 (.893), and took them to the postseason each year. In 1998, Carmody directed Princeton to a 27-2 record, a Top 10 national ranking and the second round of the NCAA Tournament. He was also the Big Ten coach of the year in 2004 at Northwestern.
Another pupil of both Carmody and Carril, John Thompson III, will prove to be the Anakin Skywalker of the Princeton offense, as he may become the most powerful Jedi master of all. JT3, a Princeton grad from â€™88, produced two NCAA trips and three Ivy League titles in four years guiding the Tigers. He turned the Georgetown program around in remarkable fashion, taking a sub-.500 program to the NIT the next year, the Sweet Sixteen in his second season (this campaign also included the Hoyasâ€™ first win over a #1 ranked team in 21 years) and the Final Four last season. How far can he go with his system this March? USC, Arizona St. Air Force, Richmond, and Vanderbilt also use this famous offense.
Princeton of the Big Ten.
Of course, Carmody hasnâ€™t been able to bring his success to Northwestern, a program that has been a de facto low Mid-Major despite their placement in the Big Ten. NU actually hosted the first Final Four in 1939 which is interesting when you consider how the Wildcats have NEVER actually made the tournament themselves. During a 10-15 minute stretch in the first half of their game at Michigan State, the Spartans did not have an answer for the Princeton Offense. NU relied on getting the Spartan defenders to focus on the ball instead of the man, then using back-door cuts and slip-screens (some system variations prefer weak-side cuts) and finally interior bounce passes to a teammate opportunistically positioned for an easy lay-up. There were about four or five Northwestern possessions in the first half of this game where this system worked beautifully. Sure, the Cats had no true scoring threat in the post (they take after their hometown NBA Bulls team!), but when the system works in a textbook fashion like it did for awhile on this night, youâ€™ll get all the â€œpoints in the paintâ€ that you need.
After the first meeting of the two teams in Evanston, I had an exclusive with MSUâ€™s All-American Drew Neitzel, and I asked him about preparing to face this system:
â€œWe were concerned. We know Northwestern runs that offense. Any time a team can hit 3s, they have a chance to stay in the gameâ€¦We knew they were going to run the clock, thatâ€™s kind of their style to run that offense, spread us out. Coming in to the shot clock, we just wanted to bear down and step our defense up. Itâ€™s a killer when you play defense for 25, 30 seconds, you give up the shot and you make it. We just tightened the defense up that much more coming into the shot clock.â€
Top of the Food Chain
The most intriguing offensive system in all of basketball is just another example of how this elite institution has enriched our sporting lives. The first college football game (between Princeton and Rutgers) occurred on November 6, 1869. Princeton also gave us the most popular helmet design in all of college football: the Michigan Wolverinesâ€™ helmet with its claw marks and racing stripes. Fritz Crisler brought the design with him from Princeton in 1938. Although they are irrelevant in college football today, the Tigers possess 28 national titles, more than any other school. This earned the Tigers #10 on the Street & Smithâ€™s list. To compliment this ranking, they also ranked #19 in basketball. (Again this ranking is based on all time, not recent years) Only two other schools, Ohio State and Oklahoma, made the top 20 in both sports. No institution made the top ten in both. Former NBA player, U.S. Senator, Rhodes Scholar and Princeton alum Bill Bradley is widely regarded to be the best Ivy League player of all-time, as the only one to have averaged over 30 points a game. His 58 points in the 1964 consolation game, still stands as a Final Four single game record. Everyone thinks of academics when it comes to Princeton, but they arenâ€™t too shabby in athletics either.Follow paulmbanks