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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.
The offense is often a very slow developing one, relying on a high number of passes, and is often used in college basketball by teams facing opponents with superior athletic talent, to maintain a low-scoring game (believing that a high-scoring game would favor the athletically superior opponent). As a result, Princeton has led the nation in scoring defense 19 times including every year from 1989–2000.
Versions of the Princeton offense have been run by the Cleveland Cavaliers, New Orleans Hornets, New Jersey Nets, Sacramento Kings, Washington Wizards, and Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA. A modified version based on Peter Carril's system was introduced by Rick Adelman to the Houston Rockets during the 2007-08 season. Coach Alvin Gentry also implemented an altered version of it, that shows similarities to the triangle offense, during the Phoenix Suns' 2012-13 NBA season. Coach Eddie Jordan implemented this offense while coach of both the Washington Wizards (2003–2008) and the Philadelphia 76ers (2009–2010). It is only rarely used in the NCAA — in part because it requires all five players on the floor to be adept at ball handling, dribbling, passing, and shooting.
Some of the college teams best known for utilizing the offense (besides, of course, Princeton) are:
At the NCAA II Level:
At the High School Level:
During his tenure at Princeton (1967–1996), Carril compiled a 514-261 (.658 winning percentage) record, the best of any coach in Ivy League basketball history. His teams won 13 Ivy League championships during his 29-year tenure with the Tigers, and received 11 NCAA Tournament bids and two NIT berths. Princeton captured the NIT title in 1975.
After his retirement from Princeton, Carril served as an assistant coach for the NBA's Sacramento Kings until 2006. During his time with Sacramento, Carril helped Rick Adelman, who became the Kings' head coach in 1998, install the Princeton offense.
Pete Carril returned to the Sacramento Kings during the 2008-2009 season as a consultant.
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