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.


  1. #1 Tom Renbarger
    March 31, 2007

    Well, so much for Oden v. Hibbert in the first half…

  2. #2 igor eduardo kupfer
    March 31, 2007

    It’s interesting that you think the reason for the lack of Princeton-type offense in NBA is that the players are selfish, rather than the more plausible (to me) reason that Princeton-style offenses simply don’t work in that environment. As a data point, Eddie Jordan has run his version of the Princeton with New Jersey and Washington, and neither of these offenses set the league on fire.

    I’m no expert on offensive schemes, but it would seem to even the most casual NBA observer that the vast majority of players are non-stars who couldn’t go one-on-one to save their lives, and if they tried to take their man off the dribble would be benched at the next convenient whistle. These players have heavy incentives to do whatever the coach requires, including run around the court until their legs fall off. The fact that they don’t do so suggests to me that coaches think that a motion offense is largely ineffective. See here Adam Morrison, whose catch-and-shoot efforts are not exactly tearing up the leader boards.

    This is one of the many stylistic differences between college and pro ball that is attributable to the distribution in talent, which is much wider at the lower levels. You don’t see full court pressing in the NBA either — not because the players are lazy, but because NBA ballhandlers cannot be pressured into mistakes as easily as college guards. There are exceptions (Daniel Ewing, for example), and these players are quickly identified and pressed, but overall they are a rarity. I think this is the case with the Princeton offense as well.

    (BTW Chad, I don’t mean to break your balls on hoops constantly. It’s just that I am a NBA chauvinist in the same way you are a college ball chauvinist. I find these exchanges fruitful, even if I do come off as an asshole every once in a while. Sorry about that.)

  3. #3 Brad Holden
    March 31, 2007

    I am not a basketball person, so take this with a grain of salt.

    I though that the reason the “Princeton offense” worked was, in part, the longer shot clock in college ball. That gave more time for a player to get open for the obligatory back-door layup or three point shot. That also explained why Princeton always seemed to win with scores that reminded one of the first half of a NBA game from the 90’s.

  4. #4 Kurt Montandon
    April 1, 2007

    It’s not a coincidence that the Sacramento Kings have lost the ability to run full court, the same season after they got rid of Adleman with Carril as one of his assistants.

  5. #5 Chad Orzel
    April 1, 2007

    This is what I get for saying something good about Georgetown… The Hoyas seemed to be absolutely flummoxed when Ohio State went zone, and became completely static.

    What a mess. Both semifinal games absolutely stunk, in terms of quality basketball.

    As for the college vs. NBA thing, I don’t think you can really compare them, because the rules are significantly different. The short shot clock, lack of a five-second rule, and restrictions on defense push the NBA game toward a more one-on-one style in a way that the college rules don’t.

  6. #6 Tom Renbarger
    April 1, 2007

    I think the Hoyas managed once to run a give-and-go with Hibbert passing to the wing fromthe top of the key and then diving towards the hole. They should have been doing that the whole time Oden was on the bench in the first half.

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