Dear Coach Brennan & AU men’s basketball…
Dear Coach Mike Brennan, the 1980s Princeton basketball team called— it wants its offense back. At least that is what it felt like after watching my alma mater swallow its seventh loss in the last ten games, this time against the Holy Cross Crusaders on Jan. 23. Twenty-three turnovers (surpassing AU’s 22 total field goals), 41.7 percent free throw shooting and three-pointers constituting almost half of AU’s shot attempts. Embarrassing. . . .and only worthy of a 5-14 record.
Now, the extent of my basketball IQ peaks at the high school varsity level. However, AU men’s basketball has proven it will not re-live the NCAA tournament berth ecstasy of 2014. So long as our Eagles play through an outdated attack style in the Princeton offense, AU will not win the Patriot League (PL) tournament, much less compete in March Madness.
For those who may be unaware, the Princeton offense, pioneered by former Princeton University coach Pete Carril, is based on tempo control, frequent passing and constant motion, such as cuts to the basket. In AU’s variation, four players appear spread across the three-point line with the fifth man hovering near the foul line to facilitate passes close to the hoop.
This strategy may work for some teams. After all, college and professional teams have adapted it, such as the Washington Wizards (NBA) and Brennan’s old team, the Georgetown Hoyas. However, after watching the Jan. 23 game and struggling to comprehend the home loss to Bucknell earlier this month, the Ivy League Princeton system does not make the grade anymore.
My woe is that the Princeton offense lacks the aggressive penetration in transition that prevents opposing defenses from establishing formation and denying baskets. Instead, as we saw against Holy Cross, it leads to an over dependence on three-point shooting. And as the saying goes, “live by the three, die by the three.” More importantly, the Princeton offense limits attack presence in the lane, which removes close-range shooting and makes offensive rebounding even more difficult.
What I saw against Holy Cross was all too similar to my student-fan years from 2010-2013. Shouting with a raspy voice, I would beg former players Daniel Munoz, Nick Hendra, Vlad Moldoveanu and Blake Jolivette to penetrate to the hoop, draw contact and get the opposing team in early foul trouble. And, AU’s mere 12 foul shot opportunities compared to Holy Cross’ 34 attempts on Jan. 23 represents the proof in this sour, expired pudding.
For the record AU fans: I do not entertain the freshman/sophomore lack of experience excuse anymore either. Any college recruit playing Division I ball knows the critical importance of ball protection. And, when the boys lose the ball 23 times in careless play, I wonder what Coach Brennan and staff are teaching in practice.
Aside from strategic positioning and diverse play-calling, sheer aggression dominates March Madness contenders, not Patriot League championships. Perhaps, AU men’s basketball needs to reflect on the program’s objective. Does it prioritize the PL title or March Madness more?
If the latter, AU needs to retire the Princeton offense and integrate more diverse styles of attack, such as a post-game down low. Yes, AU did stroll into March Madness in 2014 as Patriot League champs only to be clobbered in the first round by Wisconsin, 35-75. How can we ever call ourselves contenders when we train to win the silver ribbon for participation?
I say all this as an AU alumnus and passionate basketball fan interested in winning “the dance” and not just watching the action from the fruit punch bowl. Step your game up AU men’s basketball, adapt to the modern era… or Eagles fans can watch another season slip away from Bender Arena’s near-empty bleachers.
Alejandro Alba is an American University alumnus.