Fortunate during my career on two separate occasions I had the privilege to work with a couple coaches that installed the Princeton offense. During this time (2012-2015), the perceived impression from our coaching peers felt as if this style of play was antiquated. Today, Princeton concepts are arguably as pervasive as ever at all levels. Often the NCAA Tournaments are the trendsetters that permeate all the way to the grassroots. Based on this years return to March Madness this may be an early glimpse of what to expect at your next AAU event or church league.

The 5-out offense initiated by a “Delay” action:

Clip provided by Coach Chris Oliver from Basketball Immersion

Or the entire Stanford Cardinal playbook from three-time NCAA Champion and legendary coach Tara VanDerveer.

Point being during my time with one of these coaches at Christian Brothers University employing Princeton concepts as our primary motion offense, he told me, “The best way to be differentiate us from the rest of the competition is to be different.” The question is will it be true to your program’s identity?

Differentiation doesn’t always have to be in the form of style of play, but it is likely the most marketable. Just as Syracuse men’s basketball is understood for the zone. Or Villanova men’s basketball being anointed by social media as the re-inventor of the jump stop. Yes, that is sarcasm, yet equally a respectful nod to the brand that has grown throughout Coach Jay Wright’s very successful career.

Being different creates transparency. A translucent program mitigates miscommunication. Underclassmen understand expectations earlier because continuity is often consistent. And as a staff, evaluating prospective recruits as a future fit to the program can be more identifiable.

While at a Division III program in Ohio, style of play wasn’t the understood talking point surrounding our culture; it was the weight room. There wasn’t another coach in the conference that would deviate in adjective to describe Bluffton University men’s basketball; they were “tough.” And it was evident during recruiting visits, pre-season meetings, and offseason training days. It translated to what was expected from a developmental standpoint. The toughest earned more opportunities. The toughest found a previously unearthed resolve at a higher rate. It wasn’t a new concept, but it was an intentional point of emphasis to set ourselves a part from the rest of the league.

There is the running joke about how the best coaches are the best thieves. But the last laugh comes from the coaching peers observing all these counterfeit cultures. The best coaches thieves have stolen concepts or cultural cues while staying on brand to their distinctive profile as a coach. Differentiation is only a competitive advantage when authentic.

To expound upon the time I had with Christian Brothers University, the head coach had a unique coaching style. Practice plans were put together minutes before hitting the floor. Players knew the routine as soon as stretching ended into the first few drills prior to scrimmaging for 80% of the practice. If you were tired, they grabbed water and found a place to sit down on the sides. It was a player-lead, player-taught system; the head coach was simply the architect. Installing the Princeton offense is on brand with who the head coach is as a person and his preferred coaching style. Athletes had a clear understanding for his expectations and their ability to execute given the tools provided.

The Division III program in Ohio was a stark contrast to my time at Christian Brothers. The head coach was demanding and detail-oriented, down to the jersey being tucked into the shorts that were never rolled up because that is not how basketball players are intended to look. A defensive stance was the foundation to a defensive stop. Drills were reset if a rep didn’t start with a “low-ball” triple threat. These culture concepts were transferable traits from pre-season workouts in the weight room. Per Division III rules, coaches aren’t allowed on the floor with the team until October, so the majority of coaching began in the weight room. From freshman to senior the first couple of days are without weights to exaggerate technique forming early habits. The head coach conducted every workout since there was not a certified strength coach from the athletic training staff. After instruction he’d find a machine of his own to break a quick sweat, again giving imagery to this is important.

Interesting to note, both coaches are roughly the same age with likely a very comparable resume from a record and accomplishment standpoint.

At the end of the day differentiation exist from the discernible traits that separate your program from others. If either of those coaches looked to replicate the style of the other, it’d be my bet that neither would find much success. This is something that could challenge rising coaches today with the amount of all-access information available. Stealing from coaches isn’t new; we just don’t have to work as hard to do it. Now, the focus is on filtration. Shedding concepts that are counter to character from our coaching style and program culture. If you want to be the best, be different and be true.

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