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Sunday, March 25, 2007

Who Says the Princeton Offense is Dead?

Some of you who have posted comments to various posts on Princeton basketball and to Princeton's selection of a successor to Joe Scott have suggested that the Princeton administration has stuck to the Princeton family of coaches too long and to the Princeton Offense too long. They argue, quite forcefully and somewhat effectively, that the rest of the Ivies have learned the system, that it's easy to defend, and that Princeton has stubbornly stuck to the Cappon line of coaches and might do better looking for alternatives. Those of you who have practiced bankruptcy law know all too well that many a company ends up in Chapter 11 when a generation of the family line proves that it can't handle what its predecessors have built. Put the two together, and the constructive critics (because the debate about the merits of Joe Scott was relatively tame) contended that with Joe Scott, the Princeton line, perhaps, had run dry.

A key fact was on their side. After all, Scott, the savior of Air Force Academy hoops (and those of you who aren't Dean Smith fans don't remember that Smith's first coaching job was as an assistant at Air Force and one of his key mentors was his boss, whose name escapes me at this time), coached the Tigers to its first-ever last-place finish in the Ivies -- a 2-12 record. QED, they would argue, the program is facing an abyss and needs a change of direction.

Point taken. Hard comments for Princetonians to hear. Especially in the past week.

Fast forward to this afternoon. The Georgetown Hoyas went on a 31-9 run at the end of their regional final against North Carolina (and, remember, outside the Tigers and Temple, my two favorite programs are Carolina, because of their great legacy, and Georgetown, because John Thompson III is a Princeton alum, did a fine job at Princeton, and they play good hoops down in D.C.) to win the game in a stunning come-from-behind victory in overtime. Is the Princeton Offense dead? No way. You have a center who can put the ball on the floor (Roy Hibbert), a versatile forward who's a gifted passer (Jeff Green, who looks to have a huge upside at the next level) and who threw a nifty back-door pass to PG Jonathan Wallace (more on him later) for a layup to start the OT session. Passing, three-point shooting, back-door cuts -- they were all there.

Now, the differences between Georgetown and Princeton are stark. The former is an elite program that recruits great players and competes at the highest level. The latter is a low-end DI program in a bottom-third DI league that doesn't give athletic scholarships. Get great athletes to run any offense, and odds are that with proper teaching and coaching they will win many more games than they lose. The fact is, though, that the Hoyas run a souped-up version of the Princeton Offense and excel at it. So, before anyone writes off the Princeton Offense at Princeton, remember that if the Tigers could recruit a few "light bulbs" as Pete Carril used to call them, they could be back in business -- with the system -- in no time flat. Yes, the other Ivies have seen it and are pretty good at defending it, but the Tigers' talent level in the Ivies hasn't been all that good over the past 3 years.

As for Jonathan Wallace, well, JTIII actually had recruited him for Princeton, and he was going to enroll at Old Nassau three years back before JTIII announced he was leaving for Georgetown. Wallace then opted to follow Thompson to Georgetown. Put Wallace in a Tigers' uniform and you'd not only be talking about Penn guard Ibby Jaaber as a player-of-the-year candidate, you'd also be talking about Wallace. Needless to say, the Tigers would have been much more talented and perhaps better able to run their fabled offense.

So, no, the reports that the Princeton Offense is dead are a bit exaggerated. It's alive and well in Georgetown, as is a "never-say-quit" spirit that a very able member of the Princeton family line -- John Thompson III -- has instilled in his team, the type of "play to win" philosophy that Pete Carril taught every single day of his coaching career. Will that offense revive itself in Princeton? Perhaps, if the Tigers get the right coach and the right talent. Stranger things have happened in Tigertown before (such as going 2-12 in league play this year).

I posted the other day as to who I thought would be the favorite for the position, and now I'd contend that Sydney Johnson, one of JTIII's assistants, has to be a leading contender. Johnson's in his early 30's, was beloved at Princeton, and is part of a Final 4 program. He was a great leader as a player, and, now might be ready for a head-coaching position. Georgetown's play -- both its system and its heart -- provide great recommendations for all of its assistants to become head coaches.

Even in Princeton.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Princeton has over the years done a terrific job of getting people to look at any offense that predicates itself on passing, backcuts, and having a center operate in the high post dubbed the "Princeton offense." It's like they invented offense, which we all know they didn't. And I think it's funny that you're using JT3 as an example of the Princeton offense when, during the time JT3 was at Princeton, he was criticized by many Princeton faithful for "bastardizing" the Princeton offense in making it more free-flowing and, god forbid, more individualistic. So Georgetown's success should be even more proof that the hard-line Princeton offense really should be discarded.

10:09 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Whatever the historic limitations of some Princeton fans and faithful to have graciously accepted JT3's iteration of the "system" while at Old Nassau, it's clear that as both a player and coach there he learned and taught his lessons well. Now at a higher level, he's more the owner with his G-Town team of its (the P-ton system or offense) application and success.

In a sense, this was the "cup half full" reading of the Richard Just article discussed a few days back. The system moves to another place with new aspects and talents to create success

Still, that an elite institution like Princeton may have had the personnel and luxury to develop, hone and even promote the system as theirs is no shame--it's a good role for elites to play in society where diffusion, sharing and new better applications of knowledge emerge. The only shame was the use of "bastardize" (if true) by in-house critics. "Creolize" would be a better descriptor in that it focuses not on corruption of the pure historic form, but on the creative construction of something new from old elements that is still wedded to tradition. In the latter term, the focus is on creating the present and future, rather than glorifying the past. That's why the Joe Scott episode seems tragic. On the surface--at least--it read as an ill-fated blindly loyal return to the pure past of the system...and we all know the results...

NS --commenting from a Creole zone i.e. home of America's greatest singular creolized contribution to world culture: jazz.

4:18 PM  
Blogger Escort81 said...

NS -

You're trying to make a sociological point using "pure historic form" vs. "the creative construction of something new from old elements that is still wedded to tradition" using the Princeton Offense as the primary focus of your analogy?

Scott was a bust at PU because he didn't have the talent pool he had at Air Force, and his personality was not a good fit with current players.

First Anon -

JT3's success at Princeton (and Gtown) speaks for itself. He had certain personnel at PU that allowed him to run a slightly different version of the offense than Carmody did (who ran it looser than Carril). This goes to the age-old debate as to whether a good coach adapts his system to the specific talents of his players or makes his players adhere to a set and unchanging system (regardless of the sport). There's more to the Princeton Offense than a point center, passing and back cuts. Ask any coach that tried to defend against the good PU teams from 1970-2004.

10:41 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Escort 81

It does seem the "Princeton offense" of late has been better realized elswhere. And I'm sure to a large degree that depends on talent.

Though in Scott's case he recruited and molded the talent at Air Force to create something new for them (even as it has the historic base from PU). At Princeton he took a pretty great team and crash- landed it with too few survivors.

It's always better in any setting to start mediocre and rise than the other way around. One senses that part of the poor personaility fit with Princeton's good players-- they were talented Ivy players after all--was his doctrinaire seeming return to his own days as a PU player as far as invoking system goes.

My way of analyzing such things comes from looking at tradition and change in small communities, using symbols of cultural meaning--less the social facts of sociology. Obviously I don't have all the answers...

The closest social facts analogy is to Glen Miller who also inherited a pretty good winning Ivy team at Penn (made easier by Scott's problems) two years after Scott came back to PU from Air Force. Miller, for whom the job was a step up from Brown, seemed very careful not to undo what was working. Still It doesn't appear he was universally loved by the seniors who had such huge allegiance to Dunphy. By all accounts the team never really clicked until after they got that preseason trashing by 38 points at the hands of UNC.

It does seem Miller could have had a revolt coming by players from what I've read and heard...but he managed to settle things down and they all went through that defeat....and emerged determined to not be so embarrassed again--together--as coach and team. Of course UNC was a superior team in depth and ability, but that whupping was a serious bench mark before the Ivy season started.

Joe Scott arguably left a bigger time program to come home to his alma mater--a place drenched in tradition, and little tolerance for error. His story has an aura of mystery and tragedy that still intrigues. I concede that it's better as novel than ethnography. Art, not social science. And that's was where I was headed, but you and everyone deserves their own version of this story and the lesson involved.

The next chapter of who the Princeton AD picks will continue the suspense. Hopefully they'll listen to Sportprof's illuminating suggestions.

12:14 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Since writing the above comments, I read three Daily Princetonian articles about Joe Scott (and the new coach selection prospects) from today and yesterday.

They certainly bear out your (Escort81) comment:

"...his personality was not a good fit with current players."

Good Lord they are (largely) bitter. It seems that one aspect of the personality clash was Scott's insistence on the "system" as he knew it. It does come back to the players and as a whole they included some talented guys. Scott's inability to adapt to their personal strengths is raised forcefully.

Meanwhile back in the big town, the (3-27) Daily Pennsylvanian's sport columnist is suggesting that the collapse of the old hierarchies in the Ivies--including Penn's less stellar prospects for next year, and the overall loss of depth and quality among teams--is both a shared problem and possibility.

The youthful soul searching in all quarters is refreshing.


1:27 PM  
Blogger Escort81 said...

NS -

Thanks for the heads-up about the DP articles. The comments from Wallace and Rudoy were harsh, I agree.

Carril could be tough and critical, and many players found it hard to play for him, but he was Yoda, and his success reinforced his methods. Also, the press loved Carril because he was a great quote, so nobody was going to write an article about dissension at the PU hoops program. If you polled former players about Carril, the response would be largely positive but by no means unanimous. Scott was no Yoda and had no success.

6:47 PM  
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