Princeton Offense

There’s a nice article about former Princeton coach Pete Carril and the motion offense popularly associated with his teams:

Carril has not been a college coach for 11 years. But he is wearing a Georgetown cap, and people keep calling to talk about the precise pass-and-cut offense that he supposedly invented but never called the Princeton offense.

“I didn’t call it anything,” he said.

To him, it is only basketball, and it is not complicated. Carril does not understand why no one talks about other offenses the way they do about Princeton’s. But people are calling him, and they are suddenly curious, as if there is some mystery to be unearthed, a round-ball archeological dig looking for the key to Georgetown’s success.

He’s right, of course– the “Princeton offense” is just basketball, and the basic idea is pretty simple: you never stop moving. It’s devastating when it’s done well. Or even not that well– I used to play occasionally with my friend Dave in college, and he was astonishingly effective for a guy with no significant talent for the game beyond an ability to hit a wide-open two-hand set shot. You woul;dn’t think that would get you very far, but he used to literally run in circles around the three-point line, never stopping, until his man would get fed up with chasing him and drop back into the middle. And then, next thing you know, he would be wide open, hitting that goddamn set shot…

The thing about the “Princeton offense” is that it’s really difficult to commit to. It’s awfully tempting to just settle down somewhere convenient and wait for the ball– either staking out a particular spot for a jumper, or settling down in the post to call for the ball. Or even standing off to one side, to watch a teammate try to create a shot for himself.

Once you do that, though, it breaks everything. The “Princeton offense” really requires all five players to be in constant motion. Any one player stopping in place jams the whole thing up– the court isn’t that big, and almost any point on the offensive end will be the point that somebody else needs to move into to keep things going.

The necessary dedication to team basketball is hard to come by in this NBA-ified world. Guys who have the talent to “create their own shot” by driving to the basket are highly praised and rewarded for doing that, so they will. And very quickly, the game breaks down into a set of loosely connected games of one-on-one. At which point, it becomes difficult to watch.

A real five-on-five game, though, with everybody cutting and moving all the time, is a joy to see, if you know anything about real basketball.

The current relevance of this, of course, is that Georgetown runs a variant of the “Princeton offense.” They do occasionally break down a bit into static basketball, owing to the fact that they have seven-foot Roy Hibbert in the center, and it’s too tempting to just pound it in to the big guy. At their best, though, they place a really nice brand of offensive basketball.

This, of course, is due to the fact that coach John Thompson III was a player at Princeton. The Times article reminded me that there’s a story about playing in a lunchtime pick-up game at Princeton in Alexander Wolff’s Big Game, Small World— a game which turns out to include Thompson III, then an assistant at Princeton:

John, whose namesake father is the TNT commentator and former coach at Georgetown, had passed for more assists than any forward in school history as a Tigers co-captain. “Drift!” he would yell in the middle of a game, or “Curl!” At first the words made little sense to me, but regulars seemed to know just what to do, so I watched and imitated. John was so much the coach that he would call out those commands to players on the opposing team, too. Nothing escaped his notice from his accustomed spot on the wing. He’d make quite a head coach one day, I thought, especially after an incident during my first noontime visit. A loose ball ran out of bounds and several of us took the obligatory couple of hard steps in pursuit before giving up. I could hear the wry tone of his father in John’s interjection: “Nice fake hustle!”

Anyway, Georgetown plays Ohio State tonight, in the less annoying of the two Final Four games (the other features the intensely irritating Florida Gators versus the stick-a-fork-in-your-eye ugly UCLA Bruins). If they win, expect it to be attributed in part to the mysterious “Princeton offense,” even though it’s just basketball.