Friday, April 2, 2010

Pete Carril's Children

I loved watching him on the sidelines as much as I loved his teams. A constant motion of grimaces, winces, smiles, gestures and crossed arms to hold himself together as he willed his Princeton teams to 514 victories, 11 NCAA tournaments, an NIT championship (when it meant something) and 13 Ivy League titles. Pete Carril coached Princeton for 29 years and I had the privilege to watch his teams for four years as a grad student there.

I think of him as I watch dervishes and leapers and raw speed and talent of many of the NCAA teams in the tournament. I think of him when I watch the high octane coaches lionized and wooed, fine coaches but reflecting a dollar driven celebrity culture of modern NCAA March madness. Yet lurking throughout the tournament, you see certain systems channelling that thoroughbred talent into systems of ferocious defense and high post driven offenses of complex weaves, cuts, endless quick smart passing and kick outs for threes--many of them variations of Carril's once seemingly anachronistic "Princeton offense."

The offense developed by accident, a makeshift, brilliant amalgamation of cuts, weaves, center positions and talented but not great shooters. The talent pool drove it; facing what he called "heartbreak hotel" at his admissions office, Pete Carril needed an offense that talented, smart players could use to beat teams that often possessed a higher level of natural talent or basketball bona fides.

At Princeton, not many Bill Bradley's made it through the gauntlet of modern American AAU nurturing and directing and wooing and hustling modern basketball players.

The problem was how to score against teams that were bigger and faster; how to play defense against teams bigger and faster. Princeton needed an offense and style tailored to the limited pool of players that Carril could get through the grueling admissions process. In addition he needed an style that could succeed after Stanford and Duke cherry picked the minute pool of players with academic qualifications to get into Princeton and possessing the basketball skills.

Carril hates the term "Princeton offense;" he prefers to see his approach as an ad hoc extension of classic basketball principles. The offensive sets run through a high post player with weaving guards/wings moving constantly without the ball, often starting beyond the three point line. They weave, sometimes screen each other and cut looking for mismatches or steps with quick passes for back door plays or kick outs after a collapse on the pass. Then reset and move again. It's hallmark, the back door play, seemed so totally fifties. Purists loved it; alot of coaches hated it. It slowed the fast pace of modern game and forced teams to play tight and difficult defense. Interestingly enough it has become much more at home with today's game where a fair number of coaches now incorporate the brutal intense defense plus the careful and complex offense it requires.

Carril's system required teaching, alot of teaching. The players had to learn to play within themselves and within a complex but limited system. The system required constant court awarenss and the ability to see the court, know where everyone else was and react and pass well. It required a disciplined approach to shot selection and knowing the system. The most important enemy to this type of offense was the temptation to play outside the tempo and beyond the scale of talent and sets. The offense is not designed for one and out players or teams. 

Too many teams tempted the Princeton teams, and often coaches would recruit against it by telling players they would not live up to their potential in such a stifling system. Carril's offenses were caricatured as slow white guys stringing out the clock, the deeper truth was  search for very high probablity shots, Carril's teams shot over 50 percent. The offense could scale to talent and survive various shot clock reductions, unlike Dean Smith's notorious four court offense.

The offense runs more fluid with more variations and freedom linked to faster and bigger players, but the concept remains th same. Unselfish talented players committed to a team concept which leads to the pursuit of high quality shots off of constant motion linked to high post passing and back door options. John Thompson III, an old Princeton player and coach now at Georgetown boils it down, "I just think of guys playing together, sharing the ball. Talented, unselfish players."

Carril rejects the whole term "Princeton offense." The term and notoriety rose because the scheme stood out so starkly in a game enamored of dunk, run and speed. His approach seemed quaint, antiquated and wore an attempt to compensate for lack of talent. More than a few commentators snuck in covert racism seeing it as a smart white man's game compared to a more talented but undisciplined black game.

His own students disproved this. Today the offense run by, among others,  Bill Carmody at Northwestern, Joe Scott at Air Force, John Thompson III at Georgetown or Craig Robinson at Oregon State distill it to its essence, a philosophy and culture that suffuses the sets--teamwork, unselfishness, quick concise decision making that controls the tempo, creates high percentage shots and requires three point shooting as well as strong passing. Not bound by talent or race but philosophy and commitment. The Nets, Kings and others integrate variations into it

Carril's children, fellow coaches, students and ideas carry on, not as clones, but fellow students and fellow teachers expanding, refining and permuting his approach. In typical Carril fashion he jokes, “The measure of any teacher, provided he’s not an egomaniac, is to see anybody that he taught do better than he did.”                       He's right.

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