At this month’s annual orgy of college hoops, the NCAA Championships, you’ll see a lot of Pete Carril—or, rather, of the offensive system he devised as basketball coach at Princeton from 1967 to 1996.
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Using what became known as the Princeton Offense (though he himself disdained the term), Carril won 514 games and thirteen Ivy League titles, and made eleven trips to the NCAA tournament with players who were rarely as fast, tall, or agile as their opponents.
His prowess and longevity got him elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1997, and last month the court at Princeton’s Jadwin Gym was christened Carril’s Court in his honor.
To overcome the raw talent deficit he inevitably faced at a school with high academic standards and no athletic scholarships, Carril cobbled together a system of his own using many of the old staples of basketball coaching, things like the weave and the bounce pass. In an era that worshipped flashy dunks, his teams relied on the fundamental values coaches have always preached and players have usually resisted: selflessness, communication, and patience.
The resulting Princeton offense has been called “baroque” and “labyrinthine,” and a whole lot of unprintable things by the coaches and players who have had to contend with it. For years, most everyone considered it a brilliant survival tool for Princeton teams low on talent. But in the last ten years, Carril’s ideas have spread throughout college basketball—including likely 2009 tourney invitees Georgetown and Arizona State—and right up to the NBA, where the New Jersey Nets under former coach Byron Scott was just one of several teams to adopt its key features. The diminutive Carril, who has often been referred to as the Yoda of basketball, brought his concepts to the Sacramento Kings as an assistant coach from 1996 to 2006, when he retired and returned to New Jersey. But in January, with the Kings flagging, the 78-year-old legend rejoined the team as a consultant.
1. Cut, Don't Screen
The screen is among the most fundamental of hoop ploys: By running or dribbling close to a stationary teammate, you either run your defender into him, thus shedding the defender, or at least create a little daylight. But by bringing four players into close proximity or even contact, screens produce clutter. So Carril preached cuts—sharp changes in direction—which are especially useful when a defender makes the mistake of overplaying: guarding too closely and committing to a given direction or shifting his attention to another player approaching with the ball. As one wag put it, playing Princeton is death by a thousand cuts.
2. Thinkers Thrive
“The system isn’t X’s and O’s—it’s thinking,” Gabe Lewullis has said. Lewullis made Princeton’s shot-heard-round-the-world: the backdoor layup that beat defending champion UCLA in the first round of the 1996 NCAA tournament. Even the players’ positions are fluid: The only one who takes anything like a predictable position is the center. His four teammates spend their time weaving and cutting, looking for the open man or for a defender who’s overplaying his man. To do this well requires the alert sympathy that jazz bands develop.
3. Center Up Top
The center does not play under the basket, where most other systems place him in order to take advantage of his height. He sets up at the top of the key, thus opening up the lane for cutting teammates. As Bill Carmody, who took over from Carril in 1997 and is now head coach at Northwestern, once explained to Sports Illustrated, “We run our backdoor into the area where our center isn’t.” Princeton’s center is really a point-center, and the offense runs through him. He must be an exceptional passer for it to work.
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