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Thursday, March 29, 2007

Race and the Princeton Offense

This headline ought to draw some interesting posts, but here's a recent story on Georgetown from Time.com. Read the whole thing and see what you think.

There is a line of thought out there that the Princeton Offense is stultifying, that it stunts creativity, that it's hackneyed, that it's been reverse engineered so much that it's easy to defend, and that good players won't play it because they don't need to. You can read comments to various posts of mine addressing the issue of the alleged demise of "the system," and even I have wondered aloud whether Darwinism has caught up to this venerated system and it has become easy to defend (it's hard not to wonder when you're beloved team has its worst-ever league season in 51 years of league play).

During the later days of Pete Carril (for, during the early days, when the school wasn't so expensive and big-time basketball hadn't proliferated to 300+ DI schools), some people wondered whether the Princeton offense would work at a big-time program. There were doubters, of course, for a couple of reasons. One, people entangled the program with Coach Carril, a brilliant coach but one who wasn't for everyone (translated: some kids would have found him too tough). So, some of his former players told me that at the big-time schools the system wouldn't work because the players wouldn't want to/wouldn't have to listen to Coach Carril. Fair enough, but that answer begged the question about the Princeton Offense and whether it would work. Two, there were those who wondered, especially in days after the NIT Championship team of 1975 and before the shot clock, whether the offense was too deliberate and, yes, too restrictive on talented players. Former players contended, however, that most of the time it was opponents who held the ball on the Tigers because of their good defense as opposed to the Tigers' holding the ball (even Joe Scott was unfairly maligned on this point; yes, his teams did wait to shoot until 2-3 seconds to go on the shot clock too many times this year, but that wasn't because of Coach Scott, who was often quoted as saying that he had urged some of his kids to shoot more). There is truth to that, and I don't recall Princeton's holding the ball the way a) Dean Smith's teams used to in the "4 Corners" offense or b) Harry Litwack's teams did at Temple in the late 60's and early 70's (where, I think, the Owls once lost to Tennessee in Knoxville by a score of 13-8). I know I won't win this particular point with some of you, but I'm repeating what I heard and reflecting upon some of what I saw.

Don't forget, Pete Carril didn't derive this offense from whole cloth. Like any other innovator, he pulled from the references that were out there, most notably the brilliance of Red Auerbach's Boston Celtics. Many old-timers recall Coach Carril's diagramming the plays of the Celtics and modifying them to fit his vision of the game. All of us will recall that the Celtics were a racially balanced team, featuring Bill Russell, K.C. Jones, Sam Jones, John Havlicek and Bob Cousy, among others. Those were great teams, and it made perfect sense for a coach who played to win on every occasion to try to derive from the best. I don't think that trying to emulate the plays of an early-day version of the Los Angeles Clippers would have put any coach in good stead or predicted a long, successful career for him.

At the end of the day, the formula for success in hoops is pretty simple. Get the most talented players as possible, and then mold them into a team that plays aggressively and unselfishly, that moves without the ball, finds the open man, defends as if their lives depended on it, hits the boards and dives for the loose balls. The Celtics are a shining examples of that formula, but the history of both professional and college hoops is littered with wrecks of talented teams that somehow couldn't transcend individual talent and the idiosyncrasies that can accompany it and that crashed and burned before reaching the heights predicted for them.

So, the question remains, can the Princeton offense work at a big-time program? The linked article says "yes", and so do I (and, quite frankly, it has worked at Georgetown). Now, there are variations on any system, so, perhaps, the JTIII system isn't the "classic" Princeton offense, but it's a variation on the theme.

And that's good enough for me.

And Jeff Green and the Georgetown Hoyas.

Hoya Saxa, indeed.

3 Comments:

Anonymous Katie said...

Here is an excellent breakdown of Georgetown's "princeton" offense and why it has not been embraced by the major b-ball programs:
http://msn.foxsports.com/cbk/story/6619502

I think that the fact that several NBA teams use a variation of the Princeton offense clearly shows that it can be effective with athletic, talented players. I dont know why people are still so ignorant to think that its just a "white guys" offense -- that's just plain racist.

8:55 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"I am the back door man" --Howlin' Wolf

It must be gratifying to Tiger fans who have suffered so much of late to see the "Princeton offense"--even its variations--"lionized" in print. One thing missing in the analysis of its potential continued merits at Princeton (actually unlike SportsProf, the paid commentators are not discussing the offense's future in central New Jersey) or elsewhere, is the need for its coach to be capable of asserting authority over and demanding respect of the team.

Carril was famous for weeding out potential applicants/players who would not bend to his will. Joe Scott pretty much said he'd need 4 years to make it work as it had at Air Force--read: he required the total loyalty of HIS recruits. The team he inherited was not without talent, but to be selfless for the team and make the system work, absolute loyalty to the coach as the communicator of that POV is essential. One meaning to take from this is that in an increasingly volatile world of college athletics, a system that requires this level of loyalty and a tough, but charismatic coach to teach and enforce it, is impractical without a perfect fit …or the will to wait it out 3 or 4 years…and maybe still not have that fit. Coach transitions become especially tough. A dynastic system takes time.

However, what makes it work for JT3 is that he is the authentic creator of the new variation with the ability to communicate it as his own to top players. Joe Scott seems to have been a slavish imitator of an earlier high priest (Yoda). He was an acolyte, not a creator of the future. Given the time, the talent and--some recent PU players argued--the command structure of Air Force, the system worked for Scott in Colorado Springs.

In the end though it's like Latin. Great to know if are in certain professions, or just love philology, but sans an authoritative high priest to teach and keep the language alive, most people will do a lot more in the world with Spanish.

Picking a new coach at Princeton under pressure of time, perhaps some unresolved philosophical questions, and the Old School alum essentialists glaring, has got to be very nerve-wracking. Does Gary Walters find a better enforcer of the old system? Junk it entirely? Or more likely, find someone who knows it, and has the pedigree to make it his own like JT3 did once w good players at Princeton and now with great players at Georgetown.

1:40 AM  
Anonymous The Sports Curmudgeon said...

Will the Princeton Offense work with "really talented players"? Of course it will. If it wouldn't, then it would have to be the only offense ever designed that negated talent.

I think the question more up for grabs is whether or not it will work with players who have short-attention-spans or ones who have difficulty accepting deferred gratification. Those are the characteristics of players that will pose a coaching challenge for someone trying to institute the Princeton Offense.

I have never met Joe Scott so this comment is purely intuitive: I think he expected some kind of magic to accrue to him when he sat on the same bench that Coach Carril sat on...

4:08 PM  

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