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Sunday, January 30, 2005

The Anti-Princeton Offense Is Back

You hear so much about the Princeton offense now that it's no longer a novelty. You've read about it in Sports Illustrated, and you've seen it in action at Princeton, of course, and at Northwestern, Air Force and now Georgetown, as well as Samford, where Jimmy Tillette became an early disciple. You also saw it go to the NBA. It started in Sacramento, where one-time Princeton star Geoff Petrie is team president. When his old coach got old enough to retire at Princeton, Petrie hired Pete Carril to assist Rick Adelman.

Carril then helped Adelman install the Princeton offense, and lo and behold, the NBA re-discovered that passing, cutting and setting picks was a better offense than a clear out for your best player. Among those hanging out at the hotel bars in late-night sessions with Carril were fellow assistants Byron Scott and Eddie Jordan (whose Rutgers teams never lost to Princeton when Jordan was a star PG for the Scarlet Knights in the 70's). Scott went to NJ, took Jordan as his assistant, and Scott helped coach the Nets with the Princeton offense to a few NBA Finals. Jordan now is in Washington, where he has injected new life into the Wizards. Scott is in New Orleans.

Yes, the Princeton offense is now everywhere. Like "old-time hockey" in Slapshot, the Princeton offense is old-time basketball. Perhaps not as old as the Wisconsin "three-man" weave, but old enough.

In contrast, there has always been run and gun basketball. Those college teams with the speed and athleticism to do so will run the ball to their hearts content, figuring that you can always win by putting up a lot of points. There are many high-octane players out there, so you don't always have to pass the ball seventeen times per possession to score. Or so the school of thought goes.

The school that exemplified run 'n gun the best was Loyola Marymount in the late 1980's, coached by Paul Westhead, a Shakespearean scholar who coached some great LaSalle teams in the late 1960's and early 1970's (including one of the best players ever to play college ball in Philadelphia, the late Kenny Durrett). Westhead took over at Loyola in the mid-80's and instituted a fast-paced offense, fueled, ironically, by two Phila. HS stars -- PF Hank Gathers and SF Bo Kimble. Along with SG Jeff Freyer, this team broke on every possession, got the ball to the wings and jacked up the threes. They were so good, in fact, that they got to the Elite 8 one year (and, I believe, that was in the same season that Gathers died tragically of heart failure during a game). They were a great story, the little school that could, and their unique style of play garnered them even more attention than Gonzaga today. (And you could argue that Gonzaga is a more fundamentally sound team than Loyola was, although in Gathers and Kimble, USC xfers, Loyola had top talent).

Ultimately, the style fizzled. Loyola wasn't the same after Gathers died, and the following season they played Princeton at Princeton in a game televised on ESPN. The attraction -- the top defensive team against the top offensive team. Princeton for many years led the nation in scoring defense, usually in the high 40's and low 50's. At times, Loyola scored in the low 100's. So what happened? Princeton 72, Loyola 48, in a blow-out. It wasn't even close. NFL teams ultimately solved Buddy Ryan's heralded 46 defense, and Princeton somehow solved Paul Westhead's offense.

That offense remained dormant until a few years ago, when a coach named Dave Arsenault took over brainy DIII Grinnell, a school that hadn't had a winning season in 25 years. He instituted his own version of Westhead's offense, and, voila, Grinnell started winning games. Basketball became fun again, because the basic premise is if you have an open 3, jack it up. And, as this article points out, there are now many disciples. (Thanks to Yoni of the College Basketball Blog for pointing out the article).

Like the Run 'N Shoot offense that June Jones III and Mouse Davis helped make popular (even in the NFL, where Buddy Ryan referred to it as the Chuck 'N Duck) and that propelled U. of Houston QBs Andre Ware and David Klinger into high first-round draft picks, the old Loyola offense will always have its fans. The players will press the other team off the bus, and they'll constantly shoot the three. It will be a lot of fun and confuse teams who haven't seen it before, but get that offense in front of a defense that attacks the perimeter, can run a bit and is fundamentally sound, and that good defense will win 9 times out of 10. Sometimes big.

As for Coach Arsenault and Grinnell? The fact that he has turned this outstanding liberal arts college in Iowa into a hoops mecca of sorts is a major accomplishment. Not as good as Joe Scott's winning the Mountain West with his kids at Air Force last season (Air Force had finished no higher than 6th in its league for 40 previous seasons), but pretty darned good.

So, for all of you HS kids out there who are good shooters but who may not be quick enough, good enough ball handlers or athletic enough for DI hoops, consider the DIII alternative. Go to Grinnell, get a great education, and perhaps lead the nation in scoring.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Gathers and Kimble were Philly guys; Durrett was from Pittsburgh.

11:40 AM  
Blogger SportsProf said...

You are absolutely right, and it goes to show you what mistakes can be made when you have had little sleep. I had meant to say one of the best college b-ball players, so thanks for catching that. Durrett starred on a Steelton-Highspire team in Pittsburgh that won at least one state championship when he was there. Sorry for the error, and I'll change the text.

5:45 PM  
Anonymous joe said...

anyway - they trying

6:12 AM  
Anonymous Ron said...


Steelton-Highspire is outside of Harrisburg, PA., not Pittsburgh. I believe Durrett played for Pittsburgh-Schenley H.S. I watched that LaSalle team many times in person with Durrett, Roland Taylor, Larry Cannon, et. al. They were awesome!

11:12 PM  
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