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Princeton offense no longer 'Clockwork Orange' but it's still three-licious

The famed “Princeton offense” created some magical moments in the NCAA Tournament.

No 16th seed ever has beaten a No. 1 seed, but Princeton came the closest in 1989 when it lost to mighty Georgetown, 50-49. And the Tigers scored a great upset in 1996 when they knocked off defending champion UCLA, 43-41.

Fans at KeyBank Center won’t see Princeton running that same offense that’s part of basketball history when the Tigers take on Notre Dame Thursday. Princeton’s attack has evolved over the past 15 years, and it’s not as slowed-down or as scripted as it was under legendary coach Pete Carril.

On the other hand, fans see vestiges of the of Princeton offense on television almost every night when they watch NCAA or NBA games. The best elements of the Princeton offense have been co-opted by coaches across the country.

Princeton under Carril was ahead of the basketball curve in spacing the floor to create open three-point shots. The Tigers were taking 48 percent of their shots from behind the arc back in 1989 and 1996. That was way more than most teams. Even in 2010, the national average still was 31 percent. It has gone up every year since and now is roughly 35 percent.

Carril modeled his offense after some of the game's great ball-movement teams - the Celtics of the 1960s and Knicks of the early 1970s. Princeton’s attack under Carril featured constant movement and cutting. All five of his players could catch and pass. They often used the center in a high-post position, spread the floor, and hit back-door cutters against defenses that overplayed passing lanes. When defenses sloughed off, Princeton shot the three.

The emphasis was on threes and layups, which has become the modern game. Bringing versatile, skilled big men away from the basket is something everyone does these days.

Princeton takes 45.9 percent of its shots behind the arc, which ranks 14th in the nation this season.

“It’s a valuable shot in this game, especially when you can go inside and out,” said Princeton coach Mitch Henderson of the three-pointer. “I think it stretches the defenses. And when you put five guys on the floor that make a shot, everybody is playing with a pick-and-pop five or a four, including Notre Dame, and it’s very hard to guard. We’ve been playing like that forever.”

Under Carril, Princeton milked the clock, which was 45 seconds in 1989 and trimmed to 35 in 1993. (It went down to 30 last season). That earned the attack the nickname "Clockwork Orange." Shorter possessions have sped up the game.

Henderson decided when he was an assistant at Northwestern, working under fellow Carril disciple Bill Carmody, that he had to get away from so many scripted sets. Some drubbings at the hands of Butler’s Final Four teams of 2010 and 2011 hammered home the point.

“I remember they were on everything we were doing,” Henderson said. “This had happened a couple times. In fact, it happened to us in the second round of the NCAA Tournament when we played Michigan State. And I felt like, if we were going to prepare to beat the very best teams on our schedule, that we needed to be a little less guardable, less predictable, more flowing. And that really started with recruiting.”

More athletic open-court players are less reliant on scheme to create scoring opportunities. Princeton’s Myles Stephens, a 6-5 sophomore, is the kind of athlete who gives the Tigers more versatility.

“Everyone in the offense needs to be able to dribble, shoot, pass,” said Tigers star Spencer Weisz. “It’s part of the player that Princeton looks for nowadays, but nonetheless it’s less read and react.”

Said Notre Dame coach Mike Brey: “I think it’s really interesting and brilliant what Mitch has done to get away from it, just that structure every possession, and open the floor up a little bit and play. That’s kind of how we built our program. If you recruit high basketball IQ guys, you can give them some freedom to play, and I think Mitch has done a fabulous job.”

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