The text message arrived on Zach Bohannon’s phone on Sunday evening, shortly after the University of Wisconsin men’s basketball team learned it would be opening the NCAA tournament against American.
The Badgers were scrambling for anything they could find on an unfamiliar opponent when Bohannon’s friend informed him that the Eagles ran a Princeton-style offense, a style the senior forward is quite familiar with from the two seasons he spent at Air Force before transferring to UW.
It didn’t take the senior forward long to spring into action. The Selection Show had barely ended when Bohannon gathered the scout team and gave them a quick walk-through tutorial on the Kohl Center floor while some UW starters and top reserves watched from the sidelines.
The session lasted 20 to 30 minutes but, according to Bohannon, “I think their heads were spinning even after that long.”
Bohannon is just trying to do anything he can to help UW (26-7), which remained at No. 12 in The Associated Press’ poll, prepare for the complex offense American (20-12) will run when the teams meet in a West regional game at 11:40 a.m. Thursday at the Bradley Center in Milwaukee.
How complicated is the offense that Pete Carril made famous at Princeton? Bohannon sounded more like a mathematician than a basketball player while trying to offer an explanation.
“By the end of the season, at this time of the year, the true Princeton system has about 100 to 150 different sets intermingled into one complex system of continuous flow,” Bohannon said. “It’s one set and then each set after that has four different options, and from that piece it has another four different options.
“So it just exponentially gets more complicated, especially as the season gets going.”
But Bohannon says one of the reasons UW coach Bo Ryan is so successful is his ability to simplify a game plan. The Badgers will try to follow basic rules to prevent the easy layups off backdoor cuts and open 3-pointers that Princeton-style offenses hope to create.
It helps that this isn’t foreign territory for UW. Northwestern ran a Princeton offense for years under Bill Carmody, who was fired after the 2012-13 season, and N.C. State was using some form of it when the Wolfpack lost to the Badgers in a Sweet 16 game of the 2005 NCAA tournament.
“We’ve seen bits and pieces of it and we’ve even used a little bit of it here and there, just some actions within it,” said UW associate head coach Greg Gard, who prepared the scouting report on American. “I think the one thing is you have to have unselfish players and they obviously are. They have to buy in.”
American struggled early in the season, which wasn’t surprising considering it had a first-year coach in Mike Brennan who was trying to install a complicated system.
After starting the season 3-7, the Eagles won their next 11 games. They finished second in the Patriot League during the regular season and won the postseason tournament to clinch their first NCAA tournament bid since 2009.
While American’s turnover rate is high, it leads the nation with assists on 65.7 percent of its field goals, a sign of how well it shares the ball. Gard singled out senior center Tony Wroblicky as one of American’s best passers.
The Eagles are also sixth in the country in effective field goal percentage, a statistic that adjusts for the fact a 3-pointer is worth more than a made basket inside the arc. Sophomore guard Jesse Reed, the team’s leading scorer at 14.9 points per game, shoots 46.8 percent from 3-point range, and junior guard John Schoof shoots 38.4 percent.
Gard says the key for the Badgers will be to stay disciplined against the Eagles, who will be content to work the shot clock and hope UW’s defense breaks down.
“It’s the type of team that can run you for 31 seconds in the shot clock and you’ll play good defense and then you raise up or you lose focus for one split second and then they take advantage of it,” UW sophomore forward Sam Dekker said. “Against teams like that, you’ve got to always stay alert and stay patient on the defensive end and just take each possession one at a time.”
Bohannon downplayed his role in helping UW prepare to face American, saying the Badgers were in good hands because of Gard’s thorough scouting report on the Eagles.
But Gard said he was impressed by Bohannon’s basketball IQ and valued the input from a senior who has let it be known that a career in politics might be in his future.
“If he doesn’t become president,” Gard said, “I think he’ll be a pretty good coach if he decides to do that and give up his life as a politician.”