Anatomy of An Offense
A scattering of thoughts on Princeton, Pete Carril and basketball’s most deliberate system.
by Nick Rotunno
As basketball fans across America recovered from a wild, bracket-busting weekend of March Madness, the Princeton University men’s team quietly wrapped up the ‘11-12 season on March 19, falling to the Pitt Panthers in the quarterfinals of the College Basketball Invitational (CBI). Almost no one noticed, because the CBI is an unceremonious little tournament for mostly average teams, and the national media had bigger things to write about.
The game was played in Pittsburgh on the Panthers’ home floor, and Princeton was wholly outmatched. By halftime Pitt had built a 24-point lead, and the Panthers—out-shooting and out-rebounding the smaller Princeton squad—cruised to an 82-61 victory. The Tigers hung around in the early going, but Pitt’s Big East bruisers were too much to handle.
According to the Princeton athletics website, the only good news for the Tigers concerned senior guard Douglas Davis, whose game-high 20 points moved him into second place on Princeton’s all-time scoring list (1,550 career points). An impressive achievement, to be sure, but Davis is still a long way from the incomparable Bill Bradley, the Tigers’ all-time scoring champion, who tallied a staggering 2,504 points in just three seasons of college ball, before the era of the three-point line. Bradley’s total is all but unreachable, though Davis gave it a solid try.
Princeton finished a respectable 20-12 this season (11-4 in the Ivy League). It was an up-and-down year for head coach Mitch Henderson and the Tigers: Princeton kicked off the schedule with a head-scratching home loss to Wagner, nearly beat North Carolina State in Raleigh four days later, won a few, lost a few, then defeated Rutgers 59-57 on December 7. In the conference season, Princeton split with archrival Harvard, but the Crimson played well all winter, won the Ivy League and earned a berth in the NCAA Tournament (they didn’t make it very far). The boys from New Jersey had to settle for the CBI—Princeton beat Evansville in the first round before getting hammered by Pitt.
All told, the Tigers’ ’11-12 campaign was a moderate success.
So why spill so much ink on a mediocre team, after an unspectacular season? A fair question. To be honest, I’ve never been to Princeton, NJ, and I’ve never watched the Tigers play live. Princeton’s favorite son, the aforementioned Bill Bradley—one of the greatest college ballplayers of all time and a former US Senator—played his last game for the Black-and-Orange two decades before I was born. Aside from my natural love of the underdog, that very American tendency to root for the gutsy overachiever (and my idolization of John McPhee, Pulitzer Prize-winning author and teacher of nonfiction writing at Princeton), I have no real connection to the program.
But I like how Princeton plays. I like that trademark Princeton Offense: a slow-tempo game, systematic, almost careful, but still unpredictable and tougher than hell to defend. It works at every level of the game, even the NBA.
Teammates cycle in unison. The ball is in constant motion, snapping from one player to the next, skipping to an open cutter, five men performing an elaborate, athletic dance. Every guy on the court—whether guard, forward or center—can pass, dribble and shoot. Every guy is a basketball player.
The Princeton Offense is intentionally complex, and even Ivy Leaguers can’t learn it overnight. In general, Princeton ballplayers are not destined for the NBA, so they stick around until their eligibility expires. They practice the same motions and run the same plays for four or five years, perfecting their ball movement, their perimeter spacing, learning how to cut toward the basket with intelligence and purpose. After all that time together, the teammates are no longer individuals—they become part of a cohesive, disciplined unit. They understand each other.
Gather a few Princeton basketball alumni of any age, divide them into teams, and they will run a near-perfect rendition of the Princeton Offense. They will drive their opponents batty. In basketball, old habits are tough to break.
Call me old-fashioned, but I prefer the historic and traditional over the new and shiny. Like any school in the Ivy League, Princeton has no shortage of tradition; its legacy reaches backward two and a half centuries. The university, originally known as the College of New Jersey, was chartered in 1746, predating the game of basketball by almost 150 years. Of course in those days New Jersey was not a state but a colony.
As the decades passed and the New York/New Jersey corridor evolved into a gritty mass of concrete and steel, Princeton University remained largely unaltered, the campus still leafy and peaceful, the handsome stone buildings reminiscent of an earlier era. The basketball teams play at L. Stockwell Jadwin Gymnasium, a no-frills arena that opened in 1969 and seats 6,854. The old barn has simple wooden bleachers, a handful of orange-and-black banners strung from the rafters, and a unique domed roof supported by an endoskeleton of crisscrossing beams.
The hardwood floor is called Carril Court, named for Hall-of-Fame coach Pete Carril.