When you stop and think about it, Princeton's success in college basketball is really one of the more unlikely stories out there. From the early '60s through today, with only a few dips, Princeton has had a sustained level of excellence in the sport.
This despite the various revolutions since then: desegregation, the rise of ESPN and other networks, the general displacement of private eastern schools by large state schools nationwide, and the deemphasizing of athletics by the Ivy League.Â Through it all, Princeton has rolled on in their own unique style.
Think about it: what other school has an offense named after it?Â Just imagine the concept of an Elon offense, a Davidson offense, a Vermont offense.
Princeton's idea, as pioneered by Pete Carrill, is designed to neutralize athletic superiority by precision passing and deliberate play.Â And when the game is close, you can almost feel the superior team (athletically) start to rush things -- and that's when you know Princeton is in control.
Current coach Sydney Johnson learned the offense under Carril and was part of the team which legendarily upset UCLA in the NCAA Tournament when they were defending national champions.Â How has he done?
Well, it's early -- he's only coached 87 games there since 2007 -- but he brought his team in last season at 22-7.Â A fine season, but overshadowed by Cornell's spectacular season at 29-5.
Steve Donahue has departed of course, but Princeton rolls on: they knocked off Rutgers of the Big East Friday night, 78-73.
So how will they do in Cameron?
They bring a solid backcourt.Â Douglas Davis (5-11, junior) and Dan Mavraides (6-4, senior) are experienced and averaged 16 and 26 ppg last year.
They also return 6-8 Kareem Maddox, a senior, but lose big men Zach Finley and Pawel Buczak.Â They have a bigger man though:Â 6-9 and 270 lb. soph Brendan Connolly.
A big part of Princeton's offense is built around a high post passer and back screens to free cutters.Â Alternatively, when everyone is focused on the cutters, there are shooters stationed on the perimeter (in this team's case Mavraides, who shot an amazing 60% from three point range last year).Â Part of that is because he's a great shooter; part of it because Princeton's offense makes life easy for great shooters.Â You have to choose your poison.
During the K era, when facing Princeton,Â Duke has consistently found it more important to stop the three.Â You can expect to see Nolan Smith shadowing Mavraides' every move, and it won't surprise us to see Tyler Thornton get a look at shutting him down too, because he appears to be a defensive gem.
Duke will try to shut off the threes, get in the passing lanes, and shut down the backdoor.
If Princeton does what they've often done and run their center out of the high post, one of the Plumlees will go up and one will stay inside.Â Either way, driving on them won't be easy.
Little known fact several years on:Â Brian Zoubek was a major target for Princeton before his improvement, and as a superior passer would have fit right in.Â We're guessing that before he blew up on the recruiting trail, Ryan Kelly was too.Â He would have been a huge get for them.
As much as Princeton will want to slow it down, Duke will want to speed it up, and Kyrie Irving's foot will be on the accelerator.Â He's had some brilliant moments already in the pre-season, and odds are they haven't seen anyone like him for awhile.Â The closest might have been Cal's zippy Jerome Randle last season, and he scored 22 points and had nine assists.
So what to expect? Our impression is that Duke's challenge at this point in the season is communication.Â Unfortunately, Princeton is an ideal team to exploit that.Â We're quite sure that since the Cal Poly Pomona exhibition, communication has been a major point of emphasis in the pre-season.
Unlike some local arenas (okay, all other local arenas), you can't generally hear the on-court chatter.Â But you can tell when it isn't happening: if defensive switches aren't happening, if there are unexpected (and lost) passes, and most importantly, if Princeton gets open with relative ease, whether for backdoors or three pointers, then some lessons still need to be learned.
If on the other hand those things are crisply handled and players are talking and listening, then Princeton could be in for a long night.
We should also be clear about this:Â while Duke has had a lot of success against Princeton over the last three decades, this is one of the better teams they've had recently.Â They're a proud and experienced bunch who believe in their coach and system.Â Â Just because they're playing Duke in Cameron doesn't mean they'll roll over.Â In recent years, Duke has had tremendous games with Bucknell and Cornell.Â It wouldn't surprise us much to get that sort of an effort from the Tigers.Â Nor would it surprise us to see Duke run them half to death by intermission. We'll learn a lot Sunday night.