Less grind and more glide.
It’s these simple words that got Samford head coach Jimmy Tillette to sell his players on an offense they had never seen live and was unique to its region of the country.
Explaining the Princeton-style offense in the middle of Dixie country became similar to teaching a foreign language.
“What ended up happening is that when you really learn it and try to explain it, we became better as teachers,” Tillette said. “That’s the whole point of coaching to teach.”
The Bulldogs are the only school in the Ohio Valley Conference to use the system and less than a handful nationally use the entire package on offense.
“I think what makes it so successful for a Samford is that no other school in [their] league runs it,” says CBS college basketball analyst and Sports Illustrated staff writer Seth Davis.
The offense is based on all five players touching the ball, cutting without the basketball but with little screening and outside shooting.
“They might not shoot anything but three’s and layups the entire night,” says Tennessee Tech Head Coach Mike Sutton. “But they’ll beat you doing that because they execute it so comfortably.”
The system normally runs 15-20 seconds off the shot clock before a shot is taken and slows the overall tempo of the game down. This technique is very difficult to simulate in the week of game preparation for the Bulldogs.
“You can walk through it all you want but we know that we can’t do it they way they can,” Sutton said. “You just have to be willing to play 35 seconds of defense every time down the floor.”
Even though the Bulldogs have started out 2-4 with losses at Towson and South Alabama, Samford is a team that an open court powerhouse program like Gonzaga, Kansas, or Georgia Tech may not want to see in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Having less than a week to prepare for this system puts a coaching staff at an extreme disadvantage in game preparation.
The offense also promotes the possibility of a hot three-point shooting game, which could allow Samford to sneak into the second round for the first time in school history.
The irony is a number of schools including Georgetown, Vanderbilt, North Carolina State and Southern California are beginning to simulate certain principles and aspects of the Princeton-style to their offensive sets with more overall athletic players.
“I think you’re definitely starting to see it run even better by teams with athletes,” Davis said. “You can run a lot of variations without putting in the entire kitchen sink.”
Tillette studied the concepts live from Princeton legend and Hall of Fame coach Pete Carill and is one of the few people with no ties to the Princeton family who was granted access to how they teach it.
“I saw them play it and fell in love with it,” Tillette said. “With the kind of character kids we get here, I was confident it would work.”
The current “Princeton Tree” of coaches that use the system is Princeton head coach Joe Scott, Air Force head coach Jeff Bzdelik, former Princeton head coach and current Georgetown coach John Thompson III and another former Princeton head coach and current Northwestern head coach Bill Carmody. Tillette would the first to admit it’s no coincidence these kinds of institutions are running it.
“One of the most important things we do at Samford is accurately interpret reality with our recruits,” Tillette said. “We are a very different school with rigorous academic standards and a religious atmosphere. This is the best plan for success here and at those schools with the same ideas.”
The average ACT score for accepted Samford applicants is 26 and the freshmen receive an average G.P.A. of 3.6. The Bulldogs have a policy to red-shirt all freshmen in order to get them accommodated to an aggressive schedule of class and athletics. This plan gives the player five years in the program.
“They don’t get enough credit for the players they have because it’s not normal to play against three, four or even five fifth-year seniors,” Sutton said.
The players that make it work this year include senior guard and preseason all OVC first-team selection Randall Gulina (20 ppg, 49 percent from the field and 85 percent from the charity stripe). The Baton Rouge, La., native is in the Top 40 nationally in scoring and leads a team that only give up 10 turnovers a game (ranks fourth in the country) but has been suffering from a recurring back injury.
“I’m okay, “ Gulina said. “It’s not anything serious but over this long road stretch (4 straight to start December and a total of seven before New Year’s Day), it takes a tole on your body.”
According to Tillette, their unique style of offense goes together with its recruiting philosophy.
“The kids that can do it all and have unlimited ability are going to go to Duke or Vanderbilt,” Tillette said. “Once you throw them out and begin to identify specific skills we need but with gaps in their games, it’s easy to identify who we recruit.”
The best plan doesn’t come without struggles however as kids who were local stars in high school are forced to learn a slow-down offense based on what seem like frustrating fundamental principles.
“Coming in as a freshman I had no clue what I was doing or where I was supposed to go,” junior guard Joe Ross Merritt said. “I kept wondering, ‘am I just getting worse at a basketball player?’ Now I understand this is how I was meant to play the game.”
The Bulldogs, with their one of kind offense, intend to make up for a missed opportunity last season. Ahead 33-32 in the OVC Tournament Championship last March, Samford was 20 minutes away from its first trip to the NCAA Tournament since joining the league in 2003. The Bulldogs went cold from the field in the second half and were defeated 74-57, but this year’s OVC preseason favorites in 2006-207 haven’t forgotten that feeling.
“We have a lot of regrets over how last season ended and every one of us understands it’s the team that stays the toughest and sticks together who’ll win this thing,” Gulina said.