December 22, 2005
RALEIGH -- It was inevitable, after N.C. State's 45-42 loss at Iowa on Nov. 30, that the team would come under attack from critics of coach Herb Sendek's Princeton-style offense.
You didn't have to be a long-time critic of the system to watch that game and have some questions about what was going on offensively. State shot 34 percent from the field, committed 24 turnovers, converted just three of 18 three-pointers, broke down for two extended stretches, and couldn't make plays at the end when a win was there for the taking.
Sendek's initial reaction was to acknowledge that the offense needed some work. Then State entered an exam-break stretch, where it played only two games in a 14-day span.
Somewhere along the way, Sendek apparently decided that he'd heard enough bashing of the system, and he went on the offensive. He spent an extended period on his weekly radio show talking about the offense and generally disputing the notion that it should be called the Princeton offense.
Then, after an 86-56 win over UNC Asheville, he made it clear to reporters that he was upset with the perception of the system. There was sarcasm in several of his responses, including one in which he referred to some transition baskets being "just a component of our Princeton offense." He also suggested that some of the critics were "people who don't know the Princeton offense, so you have to sometimes consider that." And he talked about people with a "propensity to put labels on things."
This was out of character for Sendek, who long has maintained that he's not concerned about image, only reality and results. Considering that State was 8-1, and that most early season indicators (Tony Bethel's improving health, Cedric Simmons' development, plenty of depth) were positive, many wondered why the coach would be so concerned about labels around the holidays.
What does it really matter if a television analyst or a sportswriter or a sports-radio caller refers to it as the "Princeton offense" or a "Princeton hybrid" or a "flex variation" or, as Sendek would prefer, "the N.C. State offense?" Only Sendek and his hairdresser know for sure, although Sendek probably wouldn't use the term hairdresser, either.
There are several plausible reasons.
Perhaps this shows that Sendek is a little more image-conscious than he has let on. He withstood all of the criticism about being a dull guy in his early years at State, and a lot of that has died down thanks to four straight trips to the NCAA Tournament. But he quietly hired a consulting firm a couple of years ago, with the charge of (among other things) helping him to become more sensitive to media and fan perceptions. He also has done other behind-the-scenes things that indicate he is aware of, and concerned about, image issues.
One also must wonder if the term "Princeton offense" isn't getting thrown back in his face in recruiting. That's the only valid reason why it should get Sendek's dander up, because if image costs him recruits, then image is important.
The conventional thinking is that this offensive system helps and hurts Sendek in recruiting. He may have lost out on some pure point guards or low-post-only big men because of this system, but it definitely has helped him lure some mobile big men who like going outside some. Sendek insists on the record that the system isn't affecting recruiting. However, his November signees, as a whole, don't rate near the top in the ACC.
There are some who wonder if the whole "dull offense" seed planted in fans' minds might be partly to blame for poor attendance at some early non-conference games.
Perhaps Sendek has sensed a change in the connotation of the term "Princeton offense" within the basketball community. There was a time when the Princeton offense was perceived to be a disciplined, precision offense that would give opponents fits when run properly. Back when Princeton ran it to perfection, the connotation was positive. Maybe that can't be said anymore.
Or maybe this is just some hair-splitting. Sendek, and his players, have been emphatic that the system isn't the problem, that the problem comes in the execution of the system. The turnovers and poor shooting aren't a product of the system, they insist, they're a product of players committing turnovers and shooting poorly. Fair enough.
Whatever, the whole issue definitely has struck a nerve with Sendek. And that was more significant and surprising than anything else that happened over exams.