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Sunday, December 04, 2005

Is This Just a Case of Breaking Down the Colts or. . .

are the Princeton Tigers in real trouble?

You may recall that in the movie "Hoosiers", the Hickory High team got off to a rough start. That prompted the principal, a long-time friend of coach Norman Dale, to inquire, "You sure you know what you're doing?" In that case, there was a plausible explanation -- Dale had been absent from coaching any form of basketball for about a decade.

When John Thompson III left Princeton two years ago to coach Georgetown, the Princeton faithful were gratified that the Tigers didn't have to look far to hire their next coach. Princeton alums have populated the collegiate coaching ranks, and thankfully Joe Scott, Class of 1987, a former assistant under both Pete Carril and Bill Carmody, agreed to return to central New Jersey after a very successful four-year stint at Air Force. All Scott did there was to get his school, which plays in the formidable Mountain West Conference, their first NCAA tourney bid in about four decades. It was one of the best coaching jobs done anywhere in that period of time.

Optimism abounded, especially since Penn's Fran Dunphy had seized the "Dean of Ivy Coaches" mantle from Carril and Princeton and built an especially tough program of his own and had started to win more than 50% of the Ivy titles (at this writing, Penn has won 8 of the last 13 Ivy championships). Scott, Princeton alums and fans figured, would prove more than a counterweight to his respected foe only about 45 miles away down I-95. As icing on the cake, the Tigers won the Ivies in Thompson's final season, when juniors Will Venable and Judson Wallace led the team and both were named first-team all-Ivy League. A repeat of the Ivy title with those returning stars seemed likely.

But it didn't happen. Instead of Scott's taking over a program on a high note and taking it to new heights (before the season, some Princeton fans were hopeful that if the Tigers built on their successes of the previous season, they might lose only a few games and sneak into the national rankings), the Tigers had their first losing season in the league since the league's inception. Venable and Wallace did not appear comfortable in their new coach's style, and the new coach did not adapt his style to fit the games of two players who were very successful the year before. To make matters worse, Wallace nursed a balky back throughout most of the year. It was a bad year all around (certain cognoscenti had feared this, figuring that Scott wouldn't be comfortable with what he found on his return to Old Nassau). In contrast, Penn, which struggled (for a Penn team, that is) two seasons ago, enjoyed perhaps Fran Dunpy's best coaching job and won the title last year. That season, then, is primary evidence why titles aren't anointed in advance and why schools actually play the games.

Going into this season, Tiger fans were cautiously optimistic that things would improve (many prognosticators had the Tigers pegged for second in the league; Blue Ribbon actually predicted a title for the Tigers; I predicted them for fourth). They figured that the Tigers would build on last year's experience, that they would enjoy the first Joe Scott recruiting class, and that they certainly wouldn't lose more Ivy games than they would win. The jury remains out on that, as the Tigers' Ivy season doesn't begin until January; however, the Tigers' 1-3 start, and a corresponding lack of intensity and fluidity, has left some Tiger fans wondering about Joe Scott, his coaching style and his coaching philosophy. Yesterday's loss to a perennial Patriot League also ran, Colgate, a hockey school to boot, has to have left Tiger fans scratching their heads. The final score, 62-39, Colgate.

Here are some observations:

1. It would appear that this is clearly a rebuilding year for the Tigers (and that next year might be as well -- right now, they aren't running their offense with a talented, "classic" Princeton center along the lines of Kit Mueller, Steve Goodrich or Nate Walton, and the offense needs a confident passing center who can set a tough pick and jump out and hit a three). They are not a deep team, are struggling not only on offense but also on the boards. Outrebounded 34-22 yesterday, they were out-assisted 10-3. 3 assists for the heralded Princeton offense? That's virtually unheard of. They weren't playing Carolina out there yesterday or even Cal. They were playing Colgate. Click here for the box score.

2. Conversions to orthodoxy in any realm are very difficult. Pete Carril taught a strict Princeton offense, John Thompson a more liberal version. Bill Carmody was between them, but much closer to the Carril end of the spectrum than the Thompson one. Scott is at the Carril end of the spectrum -- both in personality (intense to Thompson's relatively mellow) and philosophy (strict adherence to Carril's teachings). After four years of a somewhat liberal regime, Scott's trying to re-introduce the orthodox texts. That's tough to do. It requires a change in behavior and focus, and with eighteen and nineteen year-olds, it's not so easy to do.

3. Adjustments to style are also difficult. Thompson did not appear an intense, in-your-face type of coach the way Coach Scott is. Many successful coaches are in-your-face types, and many successful programs have teammates that get on each other to demand the best for the team (the recent SI article on Duke demonstrates that). Put simply, it may be that it will take a little while longer for Coach Scott's intense style to take hold (for doubters in Tigertown and elsewhere, note that head lacrosse coach Bill Tierney, who has won 6 national championships in roughly the last 15 years, is as intense as they come). Doubters might argue that this style is old-school and may not work any more, but it works in Lubbock, Texas and in many other venues around the country. Moreover, some would argue that it's better to have a coach show that he cares and be open and in-your-face about it, as opposed to displaying kindnesses and no communication while relegating you to the end of the bench. As the veterans are wont to tell the incoming recruits, "remember, listen to what's said, not how it's said, let it motivate you, and you'll realize that it makes us better as a team."

4. Does the Princeton Offense still have its magic? Put differently, is it that difficult to prepare to defend now that it has become widely adopted? Yogi Berra once said about a famous restaurant that "nobody goes there anymore, because it's too crowded." Does this mean that opponents find it easier to prepare for Princeton because they see the offense more? Does it mean that the backdoor cut against a man-to-man defense is all but unavailable because teams will compensate to take away that passing lane? Because it's run successfully elsewhere, I don't think that's the case. It's a question of both talent and confidence, and it's clear that Princeton's at least short on the latter at this point. I am not as certain about the former, as there are kids on that roster who can really play (Noah Savage and Scott Greenman, for starters). They're just not meshing together at this point.

5. Is Princeton not getting the recruits it used to get? Has the program lost some of its lustre? Have other Ivies caught up? It is a fact that Penn has won 8 of the past 13 titles, and it is a fact that a few of the recent doormats have stepped up -- Columbia and Dartmouth -- without any other school's sinking to replace them. I am not so sure, though, how good the league is top to bottom and how it really stacks up against other leagues. True, Harvard has its first shot for a title this year and could steal it, but it's not because the Crimson are that good. They are very good -- for the Crimson. But Penn and Princeton collectively are fielding their weakest teams in many years, for whatever reason. There are no dominant players in the league along the lines of an Onyekwe, a Begley, a Wallace, a Forte, a Hunt, a Goodrich, a Jordan, etc., the way there were within the past 7 or so years.

So, in answer to the questions posed -- no, Princeton is still getting good recruits. No, the program probably hasn't lost much, if any lustre. Scott's coaching job at Air Force precedes him, as does the almost-trademarked Princeton Offense. The program still enjoys an excellent brand name. As for the other Ivies, yes, they do have some excellent coaches, but one or two seasons in the first division do not a dynasty make, the same way that Princeton's bad year last year doesn't throw out all of the historic work they've done. Harvard might be a favorite this year, but its coach's career record overall is 153-215 in 14 years in Cambridge. And, as for my pre-season favorite, Cornell, well, the Big Red are something like 2-5 right now and can't buy a basket. Penn still is Penn (and even they trailed Navy by 7 at the half a few nights ago before rallying to win in the second half), but its bench is thinner than Shawn Bradley was as an NBA rookie. So much for parity -- at this point in the season.

So whither Princeton? This doesn't look to be a great year for the Tigers unless Scott figures out some combination-of-players algorithms that can demonstrate the enthusiasm, effort and concentration of the great teams of Princeton's past. But is Joe Scott in over his head? Heck, no. Can Joe Scott win at Princeton? Most definitely, yes.

It's just that with certain re-conversions to orthodox doctrine, it might take a little longer than the Princeton faithful would like.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

No dominant players? Ibby Jaaber's averaging 20.4 ppg.

12:21 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just a wonderful and thoughtful review. As a Princetonian, this is a most depressing start to the year. I hate to give up on Scott, but I keep wondering if Richmond got the better coach

4:09 PM  
Blogger SportsProf said...

Thanks for your comments.

1. Okay, so I might have goofed on Jaaber, but right now the league lacks the dominance of Penn and Princeton. Let's face it, the strength of those two squads in the past has increased the conference's overall rating. Not sure that will happen this year.

2. Let's not give up on Scott yet. It may be that he isn't as great a coach as the Air Force success suggests, but he cannot be as bad a coach as his run at Princeton might suggest at this point. Mooney did well last year at Air Force, but it will take him a while to get established at Richmond. He's had a lot of turnover, and some key recruits (one of whom Penn lamented chose Richmond over Penn) couldn't get in. Those were Jerry Wainwright's recruits, but the program got hurt regardless. There's always a danger in keeping things "within the family". Remember, Carolina did that, and Matt Doherty is now at Florida Atlantic or some such place. At some point, the good fortune, as it were, could run out. That said, it's still too early to tell with Joe Scott.

4:40 PM  
Anonymous Will Fenton, Penn alum & b-ball lifer said...

Penn is routinely going 3 & 4 off the bench. Granted, they may not be playing a lot of minutes, but it's not a lack of dept that's hurting them right now. It's the inability to make that one extra swing pass as fast as it has to be. It's the inability of Oz to hit anything close to a basket from outside of 6 feet. It's The incredible shrinking Mark Zoller, who has made mistakes he never did as a freshman. In short - it's consistent inconsistency. But just as Penn seemed to finally figure it out a 1/4 or so through the Ivy season last year, and Princeton has done more times than I can count on both's still early, and somebody is gonna figure it out.

4:54 PM  
Blogger SportsProf said...

Thanks, Will, for your insight.

A few thoughts:

1. My Penn cognoscenti tell me that Zoller's still recovering from an ankle injury. That could explain his inconsistency.

2. If Oz can't hit his shots, it could be because without Begley teams are keying on him more. Jeff Schiffner was a wonderful alternative option, but when he became the go-to guy a few years ago, the limitations in his game prevented Penn from winning a title. Someone has to step up and offer another option the way Begley did.

3. As for the bench, while Penn may go 3-4 deep, the depth isn't what it used to be. Grandieri didn't play last year, Ebede didn't play his first three years, and McMahon and Votel, as frosh, are unproven. Last year Penn went two deep -- big men Jan Fikiel and Ryan Pettinella -- for a while, until David Whitehurst emerged at season's end. The Quakers not only miss Tim Begley, but they are a Steve Danley stress fracture or worse away from big trouble inside.

8:25 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thoughtful commentary. No loss of luster, just adjustment pains with a new coach. How that goes remains to be seen, but, while I have some concerns, I remain very supportive of the coach. The biggest concern of mine is something you touched on: the need for a classic Princeton center. I think we thought we had one last year, but he did not get ED or some other admissions matter, and he went non-Ivy. I really want us to get one this year.

2:10 PM  

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