The word is out about "the system."
The men's basketball team's unique offensive style has generated a lot of attention in the national news media lately. The basketball office fields daily inquiries from high school coaches longing to install their own version of Princeton's offense. Even college programs such as Columbia are trying to recreate the Tigers' offensive magic.
Lost amidst all these analyses of the backdoor cut and high-post screen is the aspect of Princeton's game which strikes the most fear in opposing coaches – defense.
"Everyone talks about Princeton's offense, but they are a really good defensive team," N.C. State head coach Herb Sendek said after his team scored just 36 points while losing to the Tigers in the championship game of the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic Nov. 12.
Sendek's sentiments have been echoed by nearly every coach to face Princeton this season, from North Carolina's Bill Guthridge to Cornell's Scott Thompson. Opposing strategists cannot concentrate solely on defending Princeton's cuts, but must also find a way to combat the nation's stingiest scoring defense.
No. 9 Princeton (18-1 overall, 6-0 Ivy League) currently leads the nation in scoring defense, allowing just 49.5 points per game. The Tigers have occupied the top spot in this category for eight consecutive seasons and are on the verge of making it nine.
"Not all of those years were we really good defensive teams," head coach Bill Carmody said. "The way we play and the way people play against us sometimes holds the score down. But some of those years we were pretty good, and this is one of those years."
Indeed, the current Tigers have demonstrated a penchant for shutting down high-powered offenses. In addition to the N.C. State game, Princeton has limited three other opponents to under 40 points, most recently in last Saturday's 71-39 dismantling of Dartmouth. In its only loss of the year, the Tigers allowed North Carolina – which entered the contest averaging 74 points per game – to score just 50 points.
Princeton primarily employs a man-to-man defense, but occasionally switches to a zone if it is in foul trouble or the opponent presents particular matchup problems. If the Tigers are using a full court press, they will generally fall back into a zone in order to regroup quickly.
Despite his team's reliance on man-to-man defense, Carmody admits that the Tigers "spend absolutely no time" on it in practice.
So the question lingers: Why is Princeton so tough to score against? Here are the three biggest reasons:
1. The players
Obviously, the skill and experience of Princeton's starting five is a major factor in the Tigers' success with their backs to the basket.
Senior forward James Mastaglio is Princeton's defensive specialist, the man called upon to guard the opposing team's best player. Mastaglio assumed the role after the graduation of Sydney Johnson '97, and he has proven to be a more than adequate replacement. Among the stalwarts Mastaglio has limited to 11 points or less are preseason All-Big 12 selection Kris Clack of Texas, Lafayette leading scorer Brian Ehlers and UNC's Vince Carter.
Princeton's most aggressive defender is senior guard Mitch Henderson, who leads the Tigers with 41 steals. As the fastest player on the team, Henderson spearheads Princeton's full-court press.
The remaining three members of the Tigers' starting five – senior center Steve Goodrich, junior forward Gabe Lewullis and junior guard Brian Earl – combine with Mastaglio and Henderson to form an experienced defensive unit.
"It just seems like individually we keep our bodies in front of guys pretty well," Carmody said. "It's like the offense, you get better the older you are. This is a veteran group so they've seen just about everything."
2. The offense
Yes, the offense. The fanfare "the system" has received is well-deserved. The Princeton offense is a jumble of quick cuts, multiple screens and constant movement. In other words, it is a defender's nightmare.
Though Carmody uses no specific defensive drills, the Tigers face a daunting defensive task in practice every day. They must play against their own offense.
"What we do is we make sure our guys play hard against the offense (in practice)," Carmody said. "We figure if you can guard that, then you're going to see all the picks and cuts and screens that you're going to see in most other offenses."
Past observers point to Princeton's slow offensive tempo to explain its opponents' low scoring output. The Tigers limit both team's scoring opportunities, they reason, which leads to a low-scoring game.
Though this may have been the case in past years, the advent of the 35-second shot clock has changed college basketball, and Princeton has changed with it. The Tigers do not rush shots, but their intention is not to milk the clock.
In fact, it may be that other teams, aware of Princeton's ability to keep the score down, concentrate so heavily on the importance of each possession that they are reluctant to take a quick shot. In one of the stranger games of the season, it was the high-scoring Tar Heels who seemed reluctant to shoot until the shot clock had all but expired.
"For some reason teams tend to take a little longer against us than they are used to," Carmody said. "It doesn't seem to me that we're really slowing the action down too much, but a lot of other teams do that. Maybe their perception is that that's what they have to do."
While the "the system" is the center of attention now, Princeton's defensive mystique continues to grow. Maybe soon it will have a nickname of its own.