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Sunday, February 06, 2005

No Zing

In South Philadelphia, they have a saying, "Stick a fork in 'em, they're done." Well, I'm not so sure that Princeton's men's basketball team has no chance to win the Ivy title this year, but after losing back-to-back games this weekend on the road against the teams that were supposed to be the league's doormats -- Dartmouth and Harvard -- the chance of winning the title for which they were favored looks very dim.

Princeton basketball fans recall fondly two great and relatively recent stretches of Tiger championship teams -- the Kit Mueller, George Leftwich, Sean Jackson, Matt Eastbrook teams of the late 80's to early 90's and then the Steve Goodrich, Brian Earl, James Mastaglio, Gabe Lewullis and Mitch Henderson teamof the late 1990's. Those teams played the classic Princeton offense, played great defense and played offense with a well-choreographed precision (hold the latter point for future reference). I recall that the Mueller teams would blow people out, period,while one of the specialties of the Goodrich-led teams was smoking the opposition in the first five minutes of the second half.

The John Thompson years were different for the Princeton Tigers, in that Thompson modified the "pure" Princeton offense and let his players freelance a bit more. The result was that they won two titles (one most improbably in Thompson's first year, where the team was snakebit with many players leaving or hurt) in Thompson's four years. Those teams didn't have the crispness of the Bill Carmody or Pete Carril teams, they didn't dominate their league or blow people out, but they won titles nonetheless. In the end, that's what mattered.

Joe Scott's coming to Princeton was a big coup for the Tigers. After all, he had done the unthinkable in Colorado Springs, leading an Air Force team that had never finished higher than sixth in its conference to a regular-season conference title and its first NCAA tournament berth since before Scott was born. Needless to say, the conventional wisdom was that if Scott could work miracles at the Air Force Academy, think of what he could do in the Ivies, where the playing field is much more level in terms of recruiting. After all, there is no UNLV in the Ivies.

At the season's outset, there were those who wondered about the Tigers and how this squad would adapt to Joe Scott and vice versa. After all, last year's squad, while a championship one, didn't play the exacting, crisp type of offense that Scott had learned while as a player at Princeton and coached while as an assistant at his alma mater and then as the head man at Air Force. They were a good defensive team, an excellent rebounding team (not usually a hallmark of a team that runs the Princeton offense in its purest form) and a team that turned the ball over much more frequently that the Mueller or Goodrich teams.

Of course, they did have some positives, very bright ones at that -- two returning first-team all-Ivy players (C Judson Wallace and G/F Will Venable), an outstanding soph big man in Harrison Schaen, who was an amazing force on defense and off the glass during the Tigers' Ivy season, some other promising sophs and a good freshman class. That combination, most thought, was going to be enough to ease Scott's transition and enable the Tigers to win their second Ivy title in a row. Most prognosticators wrote that -- I know I did.

Right now the Tigers are 1-3 in the Ivies and on the verge of elimination from the title hunt with 10 games to go in a 14-game league season. What happened? It's hard to pinpoint what totally happened, but here are a few thoughts:

  • The players Scott has are not ideally suited to his system. True, you have two returning first-team all-Ivy players in Venable and Wallace, but in Venable you have a wing player who cannot shoot well and in Wallace you have a center who cannot pass the ball that well. They are gutsy players who show a tremendous amount of grit, but they are not ideally suited for the "pure" type of Princeton offense.
  • I don't think it's fair to say that Scott should have stayed with Thompson's alterations to "the system." Thompson's teams did win two titles in four years, but it wasn't as though they played the crispest basketball. Those teams turned the ball over too many times for most Tiger fans' comfort, and the opposition was starting to lick its chops at the botched offensive sets that resulted in a desperation heave with two seconds left on the shot clock or the say 15 plus turnovers a game. So, while I am pointing out factors, I don't think that Scott's failure to adapt to the talent he has is really a factor.
  • This team has no zing. I sat close enough to the Princeton bench during the games near the New Year to hear Scott on more than one occasion turn to his team and say, almost in an exasperated tone, "This team has no discipline on offense." And that's really the crux of the matter. The "classic" Princeton teams always knew what they were going to do with the ball. One player caught it and immediately moved it to a Mueller at the high post, a cutting player, an open player on the wing. This Tiger team doesn't have that crispness. One player has the ball, holds it too long, tries to find an open man, takes two dribbles, stops, gets it to a player who runs close to him to help alleviate a double team. That type of indecisiveness makes the Tigers easier to defend, period. In contrast, watch Penn, and watch particularly forwards Tim Begley and Mark Zoller. They always seem to know what to do with the ball (many times they've made up their mind before they get it, which means that the ball stays in their hands for only a split second), and their quick decisions enable the ball to travel to an open man before the defense gets there. There isn't much hesitation there. That's the zing -- zing, zing, zing -- move the ball around crisply, hit the open man, get the really good look. The Tigers haven't been able to do that. (While the Tigers have fewer turnovers than their opponents, the assists-turnover ratios for Wallace and Venable, who touch the ball a ton, are awful -- 34 assists to 40 turnovers for Wallace and 49 assists to 42 turnovers for Venable. Only PG Scott Greenman has a good ratio here). Click here for the Tigers' stat sheet. Until the Tigers have better choreography, their offense will continue to struggle.
  • No oomph, either. One of the great things about the Mueller and Goodrich teams was that the zings were rewarded with the oomphs (as well as oohs and aahs of the crowd) -- the hitting of the open three, the art of finishing the play (and this team has missed too many layups). You can look it up, but the Tigers' shooting percentage has declined somewhat steadily over the past 5 years. Their two guard (whoever is playing it -- Matt Sargeant, Max Schafer) hasn't been able to convert the three consistently, and their PG (Scott Greenman) is not that good a shooter, either. And this is from a team that gets a lot of its points from behind the arc. The SFs -- Luke Owings and Noah Savage -- haven't distinguished themselves as great marksmen, so even when there are open looks, the team hasn't been able to convert them with enough regularity to put an opponent away. That's the oomph -- converting on the zing. It's not there enough for the Tigers, either. The Tigers' stat sheet reveals a 33% shooting percentage from behind the arc. That's just not going to do it.
  • They miss Harrison Schaen. Who wouldn't?

Now I can be all wrong, the Tigers can go 10-0 down the stretch and end up in the mix for the Ivy title, but a 1-3 start doesn't portend that. Right now, this season looks like a very frustrating one for Tiger fans, and probably has many of them scratching their heads as to what could have gone so wrong so early. And that's a very good question.

All that said, I still steadfastly maintain that Joe Scott will rekindle the program in Princeton in a big way, and that once he gets his players -- crisper passers and better shooters -- he'll do at Princeton what he did at Air Force. Penn zealots who want to derive meaning from this awful Princeton start shouldn't look beyond the explanation that it's just an awful start. They (and Tiger fans, for that matter) shouldn't underestimate Joe Scott. He will coach many a great team in Tigertown before he makes his exit.

Unfortunately, it looks like it's going to take a little longer than everyone had hoped.


Blogger Sports Junky said...

I agree,

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check it out if something like this interests you.
heres a link
you can log in and check it out for free..

They just released IPOS for College Hoops this week, so there are alot of good deals there.

Hope that helps

2:32 PM  

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