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Basketball's Beauty: The Princeton Offense

Basketball's Beauty: The Princeton Offense

The Princeton offense is an offensive basketball strategy which emphasizes constant motion, passing, back-door cuts, picks on and off the ball, and disciplined teamwork. It was used and perfected at Princeton University by Pete Carril, though its roots may be traced back to Franklin “Cappy” Cappon, who coached Princeton in the late 1930s, and Bernard "Red" Sarachek, who coached at Yeshiva University from 1938 to 1977.

The offense is designed for a unit of 5 players who can each pass, shoot and dribble at an above average level. It attempts to isolate and exploit a mismatch using these skills. Positions become less important and on offense there is no point guard, shooting guard, small forward or power forward.

The offense usually starts out with four players outside the three-point arc with one player at the top of the key. The ball is kept in constant motion through passing until either a mismatch allows a player to cut to the basket or a player without the ball cuts toward the unoccupied area under and around the basket, and is passed the ball for a layup. Having a strong post player is important because this player is critical to passing to backdoor cutters, and can draw help defense to open outside shots.

The hallmark of the offense is the backdoor pass, where a player on the wing suddenly moves in towards the basket, receives a bounce pass from a guard on the perimeter, and (if done correctly) finds himself with no defenders between him and a layup. Alternatively, when the defensive team attempts to pack the paint to prevent backdoor cuts, the offense utilizes three point shots from the perimeter. All five players in the offense—including the center—should be competent at making a three point attempt, further spreading the floor.

Strong Sides of Princeton Offense

  1. Efficient– The most efficient offense in basketball. The Princeton Offense uses the reading the defense concepts of a true motion offense combined with the advantage of rehearsed set plays. This is the happy medium you have been searching for on offense. Remember when your scout team defends your new set better than any team you will face all year? Teams learn how to defend specific actions very quickly, and, with the innovation of scouting and video technology, the ability to use set plays is even more difficult. What is the answer? Mixing set plays with good spacing and driving opportunities combined with a player’s ability to read the defense and a coaches’ ability to determine where the ball should go at any point in the game.
  2. Beautiful– Ok, so I am partial to the beautiful game and seeing good shots passed over for great shots. The San Antonio Spurs pass the ball more than any team playing with a 24 second shot clock. If an NBA team can pass up shots in a time window of only 24 seconds, then why can’t high school coaches emphasize this to their teams? Unless your team features the best players in the state, and even then it would work, you should focus on adding parts of the Princeton Offense to your playbook. There are many versions of this offense and many different reads that coaches can use to get shots for their players. When executed at the highest level, which is possible for any team, it makes a team play better than the individual parts. In other words, on paper, your team should lose, but after the game, your team has just pulled off one of the biggest basketball upsets in the area. If you have the time, you should watch Pete Carril’s Princeton Tigers defeat defending NCAA Champion UCLA on a backdoor layup to win 43-413. 

      3. Adaptable– Predictability will kill your practices and get you beat in games. This offense will allow a coach to determine the best way to attack a defense. After scouting or during a game, if a coach sees a particular defender overplaying, or against a switching defense, or if a team is defending your cuts a certain way, your team will have the advantage because, in this package, you get all of the counters to anything the defense can throw at you. One of the biggest timewasters a coach can face is installing new and changing sets throughout the year. It is frustrating to constantly add new plays instead of focusing on execution and fundamental basketball. If you install the Princeton Offense, you can continue to develop your offense without making constant changes. Time is something each team has, and if you use your time more efficiently, your team will be more prepared at the end of the season when it matters most.

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