Princeton Basketball Offense – Basic Rules, Concepts & Play Diagrams

The Princeton Offense was created by legendary college coach Pete Carrill, the head coach at Princeton University from 1967-1996. The offense became popular when under-matched Princeton teams started nearly upsetting powerhouse teams like UCLA in the NCAA Tournament. After a few big wins, other coaches from across the country started to implement the Princeton Offense themselves.

The offense is very popular today because it emphasizes spacing, timing, and cutting. It is very difficult to defend, and is aesthetically pleasing to watch. It also gives the underdog a unique advantage and counteracts more physical, athletic, and aggressive defensive teams.

Regardless of your level of play, I'll guarantee you will find elements of the Princeton Offense that can be applied to your teams.

Why is the Princeton Offense such a deadly offensive weapon?

  • The offense encourages excellent spacing. The initial alignment within Princeton moves players up and higher off of the baseline. What does this open up? A lot of backdoors, cuts, and space near the rim where there is no help defender.
  • There is an emphasis on ball and player movement. While there are certainly plenty of opportunities for dribble penetration within this offense, at its core it is an offense that has a lot of ball reversals, cutting, false motion, and offensive reads. 
  • A lot of opportunities for backdoor cuts. As mentioned before, since your offense is positioned higher, it can open up opportunities for more backdoor cuts. This is highly effective against teams that apply a lot of defensive pressure or deny one pass away.
  • Screening and cutting is difficult to defend. A lot of modern basketball offenses focus on dribble penetration and paint touches. With Princeton, your players will be setting a lot more screens and reading those screens and the defense. Not a lot of teams are used to defending these types of actions.
  • You can flow from Princeton into your conceptual offense. Hopefully, as a coach, you have trained your players to know what to do if a play doesn’t work or you don’t score off of the initial action. You can do the same thing with Princeton. A lot of teams even flow into Dribble Drive Motion from Princeton (more on this later in the article).
  • Anyone can run this (or at least parts of it). There’s a common belief that Princeton can only be run with players that have a high basketball intelligence. Obviously, there is some truth to this. But, this offense and its basic precepts can be taught on just about any level. It’s like any other offense, skill, or concept - you must provide appropriate repetitions for growth and understanding to occur. You get what you emphasize.

Rules of the Princeton Offense

  • Every cut must be a cut to score. There is less dribble penetration in this offense, so teams must put pressure on the rim with their cuts. If players do not cut to score (meaning - hard, with purpose, and all the way to the rim) every time, it will be an easy offense to defend.
  • Be patient with cutters and let the play develop. If you have the ball in your hands, wait to see if the play develops. A lot of times, it will be easy to just reverse the ball or move on to the next part of the play. However, openings in the Princeton Offense sometimes require just a little bit more time.
  • Don’t be a robot! Yes, you are running certain actions on offense, but you still must be able to adapt to the defense. If you’re being overplayed, go backdoor! If the defender is pressuring the ball, drive to the rim. Run the offense, but don’t be a robot.
  • Catch and face. With so much cutting to the rim, players must catch and face the basket on EVERY single catch. This will allow them to see the play develop and hit open cutters with more ease.
  • Read screens. As a cutter, it’s your job to make the defense wrong every play. If a defender is trailing you, cut to the rim. If they are overplaying you, reject the screen and go backdoor. If they are sagging, pop or flare.

Princeton Starting Alignment

The Princeton Offense starts with a 2-2-1 formation, featuring two players positioned at the top of the key (1 and 4), one player on each wing (2 and 3), and a player stationed in the low post on the ball-side (5). Notably, all four perimeter players are considered positionless, and even the low post player doesn't necessarily require dominant low post skills.

In this setup, the post player plays a significant role as a passer in various offensive actions. The offense can benefit greatly from having a high-IQ player in this position, regardless of their height compared to traditional big players.

Princeton Point Series

Entry into Point Series

This is how Princeton Point typically begins and is initiated.

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  • From the Princeton alignment, Point begins with the high player opposite the ball (4 in the diagram) cutting through the elbow to the opposite corner.
  • At the same time, 5 is cutting up the lane to receive a pass from 1. If 5 times it correctly, he can almost run his defender into 4’s cut to make this entry pass an easy one. Teams will often try to deny this pass. If they do, players should just go backdoor for an open layup.
  • After 1 passes to 5, we are into Point.
Princeton Point - Away
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After the initiating action from Point:

  • 1 sets a screen for 3 (1 cuts IN and then OUT to get the proper angle)
  • 3 uses 1's screen
  • In this clip, 3 rejects the screen and goes backdoor. This is the most common action.
  • 3 can also tight curl around the screen.
  • 5 looks for 3 on the cut or for 3 posting up in the lane
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  • 1 pops out
  • 5 passes to 1 (1 will sometimes be open for a shot here or able to rip and drive opposite)
  • 3 finishes the cut to opposite corner
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  • 5 follows the pass to 1 with a ball screen (or runs dribble handoff with 1)
  • 5 rolls to the rim
  • 4 replaces
  • 1 looks to make the play

What you do after this is up to what you run offensively. You can flow into Princeton, run another concept based offense, or pull it back out to "set it up".

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Coaching Points:

  • One option that 1 has is to go AWAY from 5.
  • 1 initiates their screen away by first cutting IN and then OUT. This helps create a better angle for 3 when they cut.
  • Typically, 3 is going to “reject” the screen (act like they are going to use it, but then cut backdoor) and cut to the rim. This is where you see a lot of the backdoor cuts for layups on video highlights.
    • Another option for 3 is to “tight curl” the screen.  When 3 does this, they are still going to cut to the rim but are actually using the screen by 1. This is a good cut to use if the defense is trailing behind the cutter.
    • A third option would be for 3 to curl/pop the screen for an outside shot. If 3’s defender sinks low, this is a good option.
    • An advanced option would also be for 1 to “slip” to the rim. If you’ve run AWAY a few times in a row, 1’s defender might start to cheat. This is a great time to fake the screen, cut to the rim, and catch the defender sleeping.
    • And FINALLY, to get a post touch, you could have 3 cut into the paint, turn, seal, and duck in. There’s not a lot of help opportunities from the perimeter and you may be able to get a pass inside here.
  • Once that initial AWAY screen happens, 1 pops back to the ball to receive a pass from 5
    • There are some good options here as well:  if 1 is denied they can go backdoor, sometimes 1’s defender will help on 3’s cut and this will leave 1 open for a jumper, sometimes 1’s defender will close out late allowing 1 an opportunity to drive
    • Typically, 5 just reverses to 1
  • After 1 receives the pass, 5 follows for a ballscreen
    • 5 rolls to the rim, 4 replaces, and 1 makes the read
    • If you don’t want to run a ball screen here, you could also have 5 run a dribble handoff with 1
Princeton Point - Over
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After the initiating action from Point:

  • 1 goes OVER 5
  • 2 cuts to corner when they see 1 approaching to provide better spacing
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  • 2 uses 1's screen
  • In this clip, 2 rejects the screen and goes backdoor. This is the most common action.
  • 2 can also tight curl around the screen.
  • 5 looks for 2 on the cut or for 2 posting up in the lane
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  • 5 passes to 1
  • While 5 is passing to 1:
  • 2 finishes their cut to opposite corner
  • 3 fills
  • 4 fills
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  • Now, 1 and 5 can run an empty ballscreen
  • Here, 5 rolls to the rim but if 5 is a shooter this is a great opportunity for a pick and pop

What you do after this is up to what you run offensively. You can flow into Princeton, run another concept based offense, or pull it back out to "set it up".

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Coaching Points:

  • In OVER action, 1 cuts over the top of 5 and goes to set a screen for 2
  • 2 moves to the corner to create more space to use the screen
  • The same options from AWAY apply to this screen in OVER (see above)
  • 2 empties out to the corner and this pushes 4 and 3 up in their spacing
  • Now, 5 and 1 have the entire side of the floor to run an empty ballscreen
    • 5 can roll or pop (if they are a shooter)
  • 1 attacks off the bounce and either passes to 5, drives themselves, or kicks out to a teammate

Princeton Chin Series

Princeton Chin - Basic Action
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  • 1 and 3 dribble interchange with a handoff
  • 2 and 4 cut and switch places

The thing to emphasize here is that each player is replacing their partner. 4 should end up in 2's spot and 2 should end up in 4's spot (and vice versa with 1 and 3).

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  • 3 takes 1-2 dribbles to get to their spot and then passes to 2
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  • 2 reverses to 4
  • 5 sets the "chin" screen for 3
  • 4 looks for 3 at the rim
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  • If 3 is not open, they cut to the corner
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  • Now, 5 sets a flare screen for 2
  • 5 rolls/slips to the rim
  • 4 either passes to 5 at the rim or 2 on the flare
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  • Now we are into our offense. We can run another play, run conceptual offense, or set Chin back up
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Coaching Points:

  • CHIN starts in the same alignment as POINT, but has entirely different actions.
  • To initiate CHIN, 1 dribbles towards 3 for a dribble handoff.  The players are not trying to score or get to the rim here, it’s simply a part of the play
  • On the other side of the floor, 3 and 4 are exchanging spots
  • When 3 gets the handoff, they take 1-2 dribbles higher and then reverse the ball to 3. While that’s happening, 5 is coming to set what is called a “chin screen”. This is basically a backscreen.
  • 2 reverses to 4. 3 uses the screen. 2 looks to pass to 3.
    • This might seem very easy to guard, but you’ll be amazed at how many times this option is actually available.
  • After the chin screen, there are a few options for your team and you can run just about anything you’d like offensively…but the typical action is a flare screen between 5 and 2
  • 5 sets the flare screen and 2 uses it. 2 needs to make sure they take their defender to the ball before they use the flare screen or it will not be effective.
  • After the screen, 5 now rolls to the rim. This will be open at times because 5’s defender may help on the flare from 2.

Princeton Low Post Series

Princeton Low Post - Entry
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  • Players begin in their typical Princeton Offense spots
  • 1 passes to 3 and cuts to opposite corner
  • 5 cuts to block
  • 3 passes to 5
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Coaching Points

  • The starting positions are the same as Point and Chin, but now the offense is starting with a pass to the wing (3)
  • 1 needs to cut deep and hard to the opposite corner to clear out space
  • 5 must use their body to ensure this is an easy pass for 3, because the defense will try to take this entry pass away
    • Coaches should teach 5 to use swim moves, spin moves, and deception to get open and make this as easy as possible for the entry passer
  • There is also nothing wrong with 5 catching the ball more in the short corner or mid post rather than the low post; this may give 5 more space to see the cutting action and open up cutting options for players off the ball
Princeton - Low Post Series
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  • After the entry pass into 5, 3 screens away for 4
  • 4 can either reject the screen and go backdoor (like this diagram) or curl
  • 5 looks for 4 cutting to the rim
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  • If 4 doesn't receive the pass on the backdoor cut, they empty out to the corner
  • 3 comes back to the ball
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  • 3 dribbles towards the middle to center the ball
  • 2 cuts to the slot position
  • 3 reverses to 2