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Princeton Offense Keeps Hoyas on the Move

By Mike Wise
Thursday, March 23, 2006

There is an ongoing sociological experiment inside the Georgetown athletic department. It is a coming together of culture and style that serves to refute any misguided perception about which college basketball team milks a clock for a good shot and why.

John Thompson III would rather keep the discussion simple and say his team is "just playing ball." Allen Iverson, Chris Mullin and Carmelo Anthony -- former prolific scorers from the same conference -- might call it heresy.

Either way, an Ivy League passing game is flourishing at a Big East school, A.I.'s alma mater, at that.

It is the Princeton offense -- on steroids. It is about precise and purposeful cutting, moving without the basketball and creating deception and confusion in a span of 35 seconds. It is the most aesthetically appeasing offense in the pro and college game today, and it is dissecting very good teams in the NCAA tournament.

It was brought to Georgetown by Thompson, a former player and disciple of former Princeton coach Pete Carril, the mad-scientist looking character who invented it. The Hoyas are taking apart squads so well that befuddled players from Ohio State and Northern Iowa will watch from their couches this weekend while Thompson and his players play Florida in the round of 16.

Many kids still don't understand how the gray jersey they had locked down on the wing changed direction in a blink and caught a threaded bounce pass for a layup. They all must wonder, deep down: "How come Backdoor U. is still playing and we're out?"

That's easy. The Hoyas are a smarter, more cohesive and patient basketball team. In an increasingly I-gotta-get-mine, sneaker-deal world, they bought into a system of five teammates playing as one. They long ago tuned out the "Georgetown-plays-boring" lament and kept learning and winning.

And here's the crazy part: If any of them harbors NBA dreams, this offense is helping them more than erupting for 25 points per night elsewhere.

"A lot of people say, 'Young black kids don't like that offense.' I don't buy that," said Caron Butler, the Wizards forward who learned the offense this season. "I think it's all young kids on the playground, period. They want to run and dunk and have that freedom to score. What they don't realize is, once you learn this offense, that freedom goes to another level."

There is no hard evidence that rival coaches have slighted Georgetown's offense in recruiting wars, but when college basketball is seen as an NBA audition by so many youngsters, the thought is you must get yours in college. Who's drafting a kid averaging 12 points, 6 rebounds and 3 assists?

Worse, such thinking embraces a warped stereotype.

"People try to associate it with patterns and discipline and they wrongly conclude that's not what black kids want," said the coach's father, John Thompson Jr. "That's just [expletive]. People tend to think African American kids don't want discipline. They just want to run and dunk.

"Well, I see the crowd react when they score backdoor. They're having fun, so my son is destroying that idea."

Thompson added: "John probably doesn't want the stereotype used as a negative aspect in recruiting. He's not the only one the shot clock runs out on, you know."

If Big John's Hoyas hammered their foes, his son's teams use a surgical scalpel.

"You get to the same point that the old Georgetown teams had on defense," Thompson III said. "Where you know, 'We have answers.' "

Carril's signature moment came in his last win at Princeton with Thompson III on his bench as an assistant. Charles O'Bannon and his 1996 defending national champion UCLA team were the victims of a backdoor layup straight from the eccentric mind of college basketball's Yoda. The Bruins were done in by a squad that had no business being in the same gym, talent-wise.

It is no accident that Carril's tenure as an assistant coach and consultant for the Sacramento Kings coincided with the most exciting brand of NBA basketball the past decade. The angles and economy of movement that Chris Webber, Vlade Divac, Mike Bibby and others employed brought the sublime choreography of the game back.

The Wizards, Nets and Kings became some of the offense's most accomplished practitioners during the past decade. Thompson figures that out of 30 NBA teams, "probably 10 are running at least bits and pieces of that offense." There are many variations, depending on personnel.

Yet for better or worse during early-signing periods, the Princeton label sticks.

"This is the story I tell a lot of recruits," he said. "It might have been Pops's last year here. He was watching tape of a Syracuse game. The announcers, who will remain nameless, were saying, 'Suffocating Georgetown defense.' Pops pushed pause, looked at me and said, 'We haven't been a really good defensive team for a couple of years now. But as long as people see Georgetown across the chest, that's what people will say.'

"Now, at Princeton, there was a stretch there where you did hold the ball. You did shoot at the end of the shot clock. We did get a layup or a three. And so, because we had success, and because Coach Carril's teams won during that stretch, people forget about his high-scoring teams. That stereotype set in. 'That's what they do.'

"Are we doing what people are saying we're doing? No, because that image stuck, that's what Princeton basketball is to them."

Said Hoyas senior Darrel Owens, before he left for Minneapolis on Wednesday for Georgetown's game against Florida on Friday: "We were kind of skeptical at first about it because I didn't know a lot about the offense. I knew that it slowed you down and made you pass the ball around and get everybody involved.

"But the moment that I was taught the Princeton offense, I knew it helped me and it tremendously helped our team. I mean, why would I disagree? Look where we're going: the Sweet 16."

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