A Primer on the Classic Princeton: Six Cascading Actions and Repeat If No Open Look Occurs and Time Permits, Which Carril Said It usually Does

  • “Those that cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”–George Santayana

    “Let me repeat: history repeats itself, only with infinite variation within limits sufficient to keep most of us in the dark about exactly what will happen next.”–jaybate 1.0

    The Princeton is a bone head simple offense that starts four outside with a high post. It obviously derives from the ancient high post offense. It depends on cuts and scrape offs running by screens. Timing is pivotal. A player has to run by a screen and get to a spot at the moment that the ball is in a position to be passed to the hopefully open spot. The antidote to the Princeton is knocking guys off their cuts and off their spots and jumping into passing lanes to disrupt the timing. Once a defensive team does this successfully, the Princeton coaches tend to resort to much more ball screening outside with the lone post man, which is easily countered by telling your post defender to beat the Princeton post man to the ball before the screen can even be set. This puts that post defender and the defensive guard in a double team on the ball. When the ball screen is set it is ineffectual for which ever way the driver goes there is a defender to stop him, and when he tries to dish off to the ball screening post, then the ball screening post, who is not a very good put it on the deck and go type, is 25-27 feet from the basket and able to do little other than pass the ball into the next sequenced play in the Princeton series of plays.

    The Princeton tries to wear opposing defenses down with congestion–the crowding of players together and cutters scraping off defenders with that congestion. The Princeton is a fine offense for m2m defenses that funnel defenders to baseline; i.e., use the baseline as a sixth defender.

    But the Princeton is a lousy offense for m2m defenses that funnel the ball to help in the middle and use defensive help (defensive congestion) plus the 3 second lane clock as a 6th defender, to ham string offenses. Basically, against Self defense, the Princeton “helps” the Self defense create the congestion that Self Defense seeks to create. It also plays into the hands of Self Defense by its use of the clock. Self teams would rather expend energy on defense than offense. Self’s Ball would rather have games in the 60s and 70s, even the 50s, than games >80. The Princeton almost guaranties it. Self was the guy that showed the world how to beat Princeton’s every time. It all came down to two keys: a.) being able to NOT get impatient and annoyed with the deliberateness; and b.) fighting over the screens as much as possible and bodying all the time to upset the timing. The best way to do this; i.e., to expend lots of energy on defense, is to play Self’s Carolina-Okie Ball Descended Multiple Offense that emphasizes passing to hold energy expenditure on offense to a minimum. Offensive efficiency via passing allows one to spend more of the energy budget on defending the Princeton’s deliberate series of six basic plays, or actions.

    By playing it exactly the tempo the Princeton wants, Self’s teams literally take away the one advantage of irritation the Princeton has. Once this is done, a Princeton team is helpless to adapt to do anything else.

    There is of course a defensive component to the classic Princeton System: the zone defense. And, of course, once Self really learned (he always knew the principles because its in the frigging book by Dean Smith, but really understanding it and how to teach players to score on a zone from the Multiple Offense takes some years of trying to pair it down to the essence of how to teach his players to run his same Carolina-Okie Ball derived Multiple Offense (what people call the High Low, or the Carolina Passing Offense) against a zone as they run against a m2m, then every game with a Princeton team became a W waiting to happen with only one risk.

    If you spent your energy budget defending a Princeton the first game of a two in three, and had to play a Princeton team again the second game, or even just a superbly well conditioned ball possession offense the next game, you could run out of defensive gas and lose your shooting legs the second game. This was what happened when KU beat first Richmond in a long defensive grind against its Princeton, and then lost to Shaka and his hyper conditioned Princetonians the second game in the Madness some seasons back now.

    So: Self subsequently made the logical adjustment. He increased cardio training of his teams and he began more liberal substitutions in the first of the two in three day games. It worked so well he expanded it to most any kind of opponent.

    If you go back to Pete Carril, the most visible modern proponent of the Princeton, he said it was six plays run in sequence that could run easily under a 45 second shot clock and then start to be rerun if an open shot were not found. Carril always said that deliberate though the Princeton might be run, there was always enough time under a 45 second clock to run the entire series of six plays and reset and run maybe two more. This apparently made it click with Self that the defensive goal against a Princeton was never to try to hurry it up, but rather to emphasize continually knocking it off its cuts and off its spots and disrupting its timing, and above all just staying with the cutters no matter how long it took. A Princeton offense that generates no open looks is just as annoying to the players playing that offense, as a it is to those guarding it; that is a key.

    And if you go back beyond Carril to Caril’s coach that taught him some of the six basic plays that Carrill systematized a bit and harnessed to a zone defense, so as to have a complete “system,” you find that Carrill’s coach had been at KU briefly as a football coach and, I at least hypothesize, likely as not probably kibitzed more than a bit with Phog Allen and some of Allen’s great assistants, like maybe Bunn, or some German fellow who’s name I now regrettably cannot recall, or maybe Harp was there by then. Football and basketball were not so tightly partitioned by specialization in those days. Coaches often hung around and coached both sports in those days.

    So: the Princeton, clever as it is in some ways, and vulnerable as it is in others, likely as not has some small origins in Phog Allen’s fertile imagination, even though I kind of wish that it didn’t, and would be delighted if it were proven to have no connection.


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