Dawgs try to figure out Air Force's offense

ATHENS – Georgia's first round NIT victory over Fresno State last week wasn't 30 minutes old when Bulldog assistant Pete Herrmann had Fresno State coach Steve Cleveland cornered in an empty hallway at Stegeman Coliseum.

"Should we zone them?" Hermann asked during a 10-minute inquisition.

The "them" is tonight's opponent in the tournament's second round - the Air Force Academy. Georgia, the No. 3 seed in the West Region, plays the top-seeded Falcons at 9 p.m. in Colorado Springs, Colo.

What Herrmann really meant, though, is "it."

"It" is the Princeton offense – college basketball's equivalent of college football's triple option. It's a system that has two crucial advantages. First, it allows less athletically gifted players to even the playing field by using intelligence and deception, and, second, not many people run it, so it's difficult for opponents to adjust to from one game to the next.

The Falcons have run the methodical offense well enough this season to amass a 24-8 record and come up just short of an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament.

"It's very similar to what Vanderbilt did up until this year," said Herrmann, Dennis Felton's associate head coach and the man considered the master strategist of the staff. "There are a lot of reads in the offense, there's a lot of motion. It's all based on reads, so it's hard to scout and tell your guys, ‘When they run it on this side of the floor and throw it to the wing, they're going to do this,' because it changes all the time."

The offense is famous for its back cuts – players quickly changing direction and cutting back to the basket at their whim – but there are also what Herrmann calls "run ats." Two Air Force players will sprint toward each other; one will split off toward the ball and one toward the basket.

"You never know which one is which," Herrmann said.

The reason Herrmann was so quick to find Cleveland after Wednesday's game is Cleveland spent eight years as the head coach at BYU, which, like Air Force, is in the Mountain West Conference.

Cleveland faced the version of the offense favored by Joe Scott, who left and went to, naturally, Princeton. Under second-year head coach Jeff Bzdelik, the Falcons are playing at a somewhat faster pace, although with the Princeton offense, that's a relative term. (Air Force averages 69.1 points per game, 169th in the nation.)

"(Scott's teams) consumed a little more time every possession. They did a lot more false motion," Cleveland said. "This team shoots it quicker because they're better athletes and better scorers."

Forwards Jacob Burtschi and Dan Nwaelele both have guard skills and are more comfortable on the perimeter than inside, Cleveland said.

"Certainly the Princeton offense wants a lot of threes and back cuts, but this team seems to shoot even more threes, and certainly when they are knocking them down, they are capable," he said. "Georgia may or may not be able to play both (big men Takais Brown and David Bliss) at the same time because they're going to have to be able to guard somebody out there."

Air Force shoots 48.9 percent from the field, the 13th-best mark in the nation, and 40.2 percent from 3-point range, which is 15th best in country. Cleveland expects Georgia to play a lot of zone, which the Bulldogs did with great success against his team, but Herrmann said that's no guarantee against a team that starts four seniors and a junior.

"They've got a lot of seniors, a lot of successful seniors. They are used to playing against teams with all kinds of defenses, whether it be sagging or up into them," he said. "They are used to making those reads, and it'll be a very tough game."

Defense, normally a staple of Felton teams, has been a sore point this year. The Bulldogs are 162nd in the nation in points allowed (68.6) and 138th in shooting percentage defense (43.4 percent).

"You've got to stay with your principles defensively and what you do all the time, but at the same time you have to adjust to their reads," Herrmann said. "They have good players, now, that's what makes any offense go. One is they execute it very well. Two is they ave very good players. That's the basis of why they are successful."

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