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The Verdict: Keys to beating the Princeton Tigers

Mizzou has found a pairing with an unlikely opponent in Princeton and we’re here to give you the dirty details of the matchup.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament First Round-Utah State vs Missouri Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

When we were penning the piece that served as a preview for Utah State, we must admit, we didn’t expect to be writing THIS.

No, not because we expected Mizzou to fall to the Aggies. Though Utah State was an opponent very capable of beating the Tigers, it wasn’t that.

Instead, we had already put our preliminary efforts towards the Wildcats of Arizona. The Pac-12 Tournament champs entered the tournament at 28-7 and a top 10 squad by just about any measure. They would be a very formidable foe.

And then March happened.

The Tigers of Princeton pulled off yet another upset. Most famously remembered for defeating the defending National Champions in 1996 when the 13th seeded Tigers beat #4 UCLA, the Ivy League standouts now have an even more impressive upset feather in their cap. They knocked off a #2 seed as a #15 for the 11th time. Ever.

Mizzou will be faced with an opportunity. Yet the matchup is not one to be taken for granted. For Mizzou has faced a #15 seed before, and it did not go well. Furthermore, you don’t knock of Arizona if you’re not capable of beating other NCAA Tournament teams.

Taking a step back, if given more time, we’d likely have written a fun piece on what will be an underappreciated story line. Mizzou’s top 10 offense is predicated on the well-known scheme that was perfected by Pete Carril. Carril served as Princeton’s coach from 1967-1996 and is widely regarded as one of the best basketball minds to have been part of the game.

So much so, his offensive concepts are still being used today at all levels of the sport, including by Mizzou in large measure. These concepts are simply regarded as “Princeton.” We’ve tried to cover some of the basic contours here, but Dennis Gates has spoken at length about how much, “Princeton,” forms his schematic world-view. If you’re looking for supplemental information, Gates went in depth on an episode of the Slapping Glass podcast.

Nonetheless, advancing in the tournament leads to short turnarounds. We’re no exception. Let’s dive into what to watch for in this surprising matchup.

Princeton V UCLA

When Mizzou has the Ball

1. Hit The Gas Pedal

Mizzou has a depth problem. We’ve discussed it in a standalone piece mid-season. In game 1 of the tournament, Mizzou had three players crack 30 minutes and three more play between 24-29 minutes. Aidan Shaw and Mohammed Diarra only played 13 minutes, combined. The other six men absorbed the other 187 minutes. Generally when that’s an issue, playing fast is NOT at the scout two days later.

But it is tomorrow. Princeton, much like Mizzou’s opponent on Thursday, is even more reliant on a quad of players. Tosan Evbuomwan (79.3% of minutes), Matt Allocco (84.0%), Ryan Langborg (78.9%) and Caden Pierce (76.7%) all average 30+ minutes a night for Princeton. In their game against Arizona, those four all played 30+ minutes and combined for a 139 minutes total. Three other players appeared and picked up the remainder with Zach Martini playing 29.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament First Round-Utah State vs Missouri Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Put simply, Princeton is just as reliant on a short bench as Mizzou is, and Mizzou WANTS to play a 94-foot game while Princeton does not.

Mizzou uses ~22% of it’s offensive possessions in transition — among the nation’s highest — and is incredibly efficient, notching 1.117 PPP (points per possession). Meanwhile, Princeton’s defense only sees transition opportunities on ~13% of possessions and yields north of 1.000 PPP, a figure that should cause them concern.

Mizzou needs to push at any and all opportunity. Whether it’s off of turnovers (see below), rebounding misses or even made baskets. The Tigers have the advantage in this area. A big one. On top of that, Princeton is facing an equal — or greater — threat of tired legs.

2. Space Out in the Half-Court

Mizzou rarely has problems with this, but it’s vitally important on Saturday. Mizzou must make Princeton extend their defense.

In Thursday’s game, Arizona took 41 of 57 shots within the arc. The Wildcats were a paltry 3-16 behind the arc which fed into that figure. Arizona typically took 37% of their field goal attempts from three-point range, but against Princeton only 28%. Much of their offensive strategy was centered around using the impressive size (and skill) of Azuolas Tubelis and Oumar Ballo to attack the interior of the Princeton defense. Those two combined for 14-28 inside the arc. While 50% is not a bad efficiency figure, it’s the volume that created problems. Almost exactly 50% of their shots came from their big men at close range.

Princeton has faced a LOT of post-up opportunities this season and has graded out well. They’re not a huge team, but they’re well-schooled on defending in tight areas. And they did exactly that against Arizona to pull the upset.

Mizzou is a shockingly effective team in post-ups. That was a big facet of the plan against Utah State. It probably shouldn’t be — at least primarily — against Princeton.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament First Round-Utah State vs Missouri Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Rather, Mizzou’s focus here should be to spread the other Tigers’ defense out as much as possible. Whether it’s spreading the floor and running ball screens — which Princeton has struggled to defend — playing through the high post in their own version of “Princeton,” — or going fully 5-out. Mizzou must make Princeton defend on islands. Actions are much easier to defend when you’re only covering limited space, and Princeton does that well.

This isn’t to say they shouldn’t attack the rim. In fact, it’s the opposite. It’s merely how you attack the rim. Princeton gives up a high rate of shots at the rack. Instead of dribbling into post ups from the wing, or running punch plays for Kobe on the block — which can still be advantageous depending on defensive matchup — rather, look for Mizzou to get players touches on the perimeter and isolate, use ball screens and/or cuts to get to the heart of the paint. Mizzou has done this well throughout the year, but it will be imperative on Saturday.

3. Make ENOUGH Jump Shots

A repeat of Thursday. It shouldn’t come to any shock that Mizzou needs to make jumpers to advance. This applies to virtually every team in March.

Princeton does a good job of marking spot-up shooters, closing out with discipline and tamping down catch and shoot opportunities. But there will still be chances. Princeton has allowed 13 opponents to hit 35% from three-point range this season. They’re 6-7 in those affairs and 14-1 when holding opponents under 35%. Comparatively, Mizzou is 17-0 when hitting 35%+ and 8-9 when failing to do so.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament First Round-Utah State vs Missouri Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Mizzou should look for early looks in transition and when attacking defensive mismatches on the ball with kick-outs when help arrives. Many of Princeton’s prior opponents have worked from the inside out. Their tough interior defense on the block allows easier recoveries to outside shooters since help isn’t necessary. Mizzou, instead, will likely look to generate outside looks in other ways that require longer recoveries with secondary defenders helping primary defenders, lest they allow Mizzou’s on-ball offense to thrive. The opportunities will be there, and the preferred Tigers would do well to capitalize when they come.

When Princeton has the Ball

1. Play 94 Feet

Again, it’s a hedged bet that Mizzou is more capable to play a full-court game on short rest than Princeton is. It’s not an ideal scenario, but we’re at the odds playing stage.

Princeton will run in transition but hasn’t graded out well in efficiency when doing so. They do tend to break the presses they faced, though you’d expect Mizzou’s defense to be more capable of generating turnovers than those in the Ivy League. Princeton has protected the ball pretty well on balance. You’re putting faith in your team to do what they’ve done all year.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament First Round-Princeton vs Arizona Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Similarly to Utah State, you have multiple goals here. 1. You want to create turnovers and easy transition buckets when you can. 2. You want to minimize the time you have to defend in a half-court setting. 3. You’re betting that your guys are better equipped to play this style than the opponent.

2. Be Strong on the Block

Princeton uses one of the highest rates of post-up opportunities in the nation. Not only do they attempt to score there, they spray the ball around when doubles come. It’s a throwback of sorts.

Mizzou has done fairly well defending post-ups this season, but it brings about a dilemma. Do you trust your front-court to go one on one, at the risk of picking up fouls on key pieces and/or giving up buckets at the rim? Or do you dig down with perimeter players or use full-on double teams to cut the head off of the snake at the risk of giving up clean opportunities beyond the arc?

Princeton is not an overly large team, but they’re skilled in this area.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament First Round-Princeton vs Arizona Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Tosan Evbuomwan and Keeshawn Kellman are their primary options on the block. Both are quite efficient in this manner but have a tendency to turn the ball over when posting (~20%). Unless and until Mizzou gets burned on aggressive defense, I’d expect the Columbia Tigers to try to generate turnovers and difficult shots with intermittent traps.

3. Perimeter Integrity

When you hear the phrase “Princeton Offense,” the one thing you’ll inevitably think of is back door cuts. This version doesn’t cut a lot, but when they do, they’re hyper efficient. The back door cut is the premier way to burn ball denials on the offense, which Mizzou is known for.

Princeton is an ok three-point shooting team, making 33.3% of attempts on the season. What’s dangerous about them is HOW they generate their chances. They’re not pulling up on isos. No, they’re taking the best percentage opportunities: Catch and Shoots. Nearly 80% of their jumpers come in this fashion, among the nation’s highest. While their percentage is not other-worldly, the types of shots they get are inherently better than most. And in a small sample size such as a tournament game, that causes you a little worry.

Matt Alloco (41% 3pt shooter) is the primary worry. However, Caden Pierce (31.1%), Ryan Langborg (30.6%) and Blake Peters (38.3%) can burn you when you allow them to. All four grade out above average on spot-up opportunities and the team as a whole is 80th percentile in offense coming via those spot-ups.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament First Round-Princeton vs Arizona Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

This will provide a challenge for Mizzou defenders. Covering quality shooters that are efficient at executing back door cuts all the while trying to head off prime post-up opportunities? It’s a tough ask.

However, if Mizzou defends with the same intensity they did Thursday, it’s possible. Especially if they’re able to generate take aways before these potential problems even become an issue.

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: FEB 25 Princeton at Harvard Photo by Erica Denhoff/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Imitation is Flattery

Historically, facing Princeton on a short turnaround induced a sense of dread.

Back in the day, Pete Carril’s teams tended to play slow, and the Tigers’ possessions were a matter of attrition for an opposing defense. At some point, Princeton’s regular screening and reads off of cuts would catch you out. Whatever the Tigers’ roster lacked in athleticism, it offset in pure patience.

Well, coach Mitch Henderson has made some upgrades.

For one, his iteration of Princeton hasn’t been afraid to play at a faster clip — or at least it’s fast in the relative sense. Meanwhile, his personnel, particularly at the four and five spots, wouldn’t be out of place in a conference like the Missouri Valley. But the program’s operating system remains much the same.

And if you’re a Mizzou fan, it will look very familiar.

While Princeton isn’t prone to hunting early-clock chances, the Tigers can turn to a straightforward method: a rip screen.

Evbuomwan typically sets up shop around the elbow, nail, or top of the key. But on occasion, a guard will jog toward the strong-side block and screen for the Tigers’ four-man, who uses it to shed his defender and clean entry. Usually, the corner on that side is also empty, ensuring no guard is digging and swiping at the ball.

So, Evbuomwan can either go to work against solo coverage. Or if help rolls to him, he can pass behind that extra defender. While this does create favorable situations for Evbuomwan on the block, he can struggle to finish over the top of a big walling up.

Henderson’s squad isn’t above relying on an empty-side ball screen. Meanwhile, a player camps in the short corner, and two guards interchange between the wing in the slot.

This is a concession to modernity but also fits Princeton’s ethos. Watch the first clip. Once Allocco feeds Evbuomwan, he sets a down screen for Ryan Langborg. Next, Allocco pops out to the key. Two defenders go with Longhorn, and Evbuomwan has an easy read — kick it out to Allocco for a wide-open catch-and-shoot.

Mizzou can do the same thing. Kobe Brown and Noah Carter can slip into post-ups. If they’re the dribbler, they can hunt a switch onto a guard and crab dribble into the post. Or they might be able to pop out instead of slip. Meanwhile, D’Moi Hodge or Nick Honor can fill dangerous spots off the ball.

One staple of the Princeton offense is a series called delay. Sound vague. Well, it’s really not. It starts out simple enough: a big catches the ball at the top of the key, followed by the passer sprinting to set a down screen for a teammate in the corner.

That cutter is reading how their defender is the coverage. Is the opponent simply switching? Is their defender trying to overplay and prevent them from using the screen? Should they use it or reject it?

Early in Mizzou’s season, that cutter curled and cleared to the weakside corner. But more recently, MU’s added a wrinkle where the cutter becomes a screener, allowing their teammate to pop out for a 3-ball from the wing.

Princeton, however, tends to get the ball to the second side of the floor off a reversal. In this outing against Brown, that was a shooter on a flare screen. If they can’t get a clean look, they dribble back to the point and enter the ball to Evbuomwan. From there, guards run screening action on the weak side. Maybe the guard who made the pass to Evbuomwan cuts hard against an overplay. Or Evbuomwan can back his defender down in the vacated space behind him.

Sometimes, the delay series can flow into a handoff or a flip to that cutter running off that initial down screen. Recently, Mizzou’s tried this action, which allows D’Moi Hodge to get a touch and potentially turn the corner to get downhill. Yet it comes with the added benefit of letting the big man, the connector, roll into a post-up, whether on the block or a duck-in.

For Princeton, it’s another way to get Evbuomwan a clean catch. In the first clip, he makes a good read. A defender digs down, so he passes back to the shooter that was left alone. But in the second snippet, Princeton clears a side of the floor and allows Evbuomwan to try and work free. Yet the Tigers don’t stay stagnant. Instead, they all relocate to make themselves available. On the kick out, Brown’s scrambling to recover, and it gives Princeton a late-lock chance to drive on a closeout.

Princeton’s bigs are also competent enough to bring the ball up and initiate the action themselves.

When that unfolds, the action resembles a standard dribble handoff. Mizzou sometimes asks Brown and Noah Carter to carry out this task. And when it’s working well, the cutter on the down screen will opt to pop out to the wing while their teammate sets a wall screen. Then, all Carter or Brown has to do is put a pass in the shooting pocket.

Princeton, however, is more inclined to have the cutter run off that down screen, receive a handoff, and sprint into a spot-up attempt. The Tigers can also turn it into a patterned action, cycling through several times and seeing what those down screens yield. In the second clip, for example, the player setting the down screen tries to slip to a post-up, but Evbuomwan can’t feed Caden Piece. So instead, he turns it into a late-clock isolation opportunity from the elbow.

Princeton’s also keen on using the elbow – or pinch post – as a hub for operations.

So is Mizzou.

And if you watch all three of these clips, the action off the ball should look familiar. There’s a down screen on the weak side of the floor, a handoff with a cutter, and a guard rejecting split action to run a handoff at the top of the key. Coach Dennis Gates’ system utilizes these same components to varying degrees.

But MU will also put its spin on this template, particularly when it comes to secondary actions. It might incorporate some shuffle actions inspired by John Beilein’s system. There might be a hammer action – a staple of NBA offenses since the ‘90s – on the weak side. Those tweaks are fun, but the lineage traces back to New Jersey and a coach with a robust sweater collection.

To prepare for Saturday, all MU has to do is look in the mirror.