Men's Hoops: Inside the backdoor offense

VandyMania's Howell Peiser gives us a tutorial of the backdoor offense and explains ways to defend against it.

Vanderbilt Basketball Tutorial

(The Backdoor Offense)


There has been plenty of discussion on Vandymania about Vanderbilt's half-court offensive philosophy.   Some of it has been heated, while for the most part, the discussion has been civil and professional.


Many fans have requested I display exactly what Vanderbilt does on offense.   The current patterns are variations of the offense Coach Pete Carril made famous at Princeton between the late 1960's and the late 1990's.


To set the record straight, Vanderbilt does not utilize the exact same offense as the Tigers.   It is quite similar, but there are multiple differences.  In the same fashion, former Commodore Coach Eddie Fogler used a similar but different system here than his mentor Dean Smith used at North Carolina.


Let's begin by parsing the appellation of this offense.  Calling it the Princeton Offense is like calling Yankee Stadium "The House That DiMaggio Built."   While Princeton made this offense popular, Pete Carril did not invent it.  I cannot say just how far back it goes, but the Boston Celtics ran this type of offense as their high-percentage game as far back as the late 1950's when Coach Red Auerbach had sleight-of-hand wizards like Bob Cousy and Bill Sharman in his backcourt.   The Celtics usually relied on this offense to get demoralizing crip shots once their vaunted fast break gave them a nice lead.


Initially Carril's Princeton teams played at a faster pace.  They employed a pressure man-to-man defense and relied on the fast break.  Players like Geoff Petrie, John Hummer, Armond Hill, Brian Taylor, and Ted Manakas could run with anybody.  The faster-paced Tigers won the 1975 NIT when that championship meant you were one of the top 20 teams in the nation.   The Tigers scored 80 or more points in three of the four NIT games.


As 1975-76 approached,  Coach Carril was faced with a dilemma.   Too much of his team's tactical speed had graduated.  His roster wasn't proficient for playing pressure man defense.  What he had was a group of intelligent team players who were fine shooters.   So, Carril installed a match up zone defense and relied more and more on his backdoor offense and less and less on a transition game.


Princeton still continued to win, sharing Ivy League dominance with rival Penn for the next two decades.   Player like Barnes Hauptfuhrer, Frank Sowinski, Billy Omeltchenko, and Bob Roma continued to bring Princeton all-Ivy accolades.  Other Ivy stars followed in the ensuing years.   Make no mistake about it; Princeton kept winning because Carril kept identifying top talent that could enroll at the excellent school. 


That's enough about Princeton.  Let's return to the Ivy League school of the Southeastern Conference.  


Let's move forward to 2003.  Vanderbilt had just completed their worst basketball season since football assistants were coaching the team.   Included in the low-water mark was a 62-point blowout loss to Kentucky.  The offense had difficulty just advancing the ball into the scoring zone.   By the time the next season started, Vanderbilt was now running their version of the backdoor offense.  With exceptional talent playing together as a team and with Matt Freije leading by example, Vandy began 2003-04 with 12 consecutive victories.   The season culminated with a trip to the Sweet 16 and 23 wins.


The same offense has remained in place since then.  How does it work?   To start with, this is not a set pattern offense where each player has a specific duty to carry out (like a football play).  Each player is presented with multiple options based on how he perceives the defense to be playing.   Thus, each player must make split-second decisions while the game is progressing.  A player might have four or five different options available to himself in just five seconds of action.   When the offensive players recognize the defensive weaknesses on a possession and execute the philosophy correctly and on the same page, it usually results in an embarrassing defeat for the defense on that possession.   If there are enough embarrassments, Vandy wins the game.


Before showing the diagrams, let me explain the doodles for those not familiar with the standards used by most coaches.


A straight line is the movement of the player.   An arrow at the end of that line signifies the direction he continues.  A large dot indicates he stops at that spot.


A jagged line indicates a player dribbling the ball.


A dotted line indicates a pass from one player to another.   The arrow signifies the direction of the pass.


The number in the lower left of the box indicates the diagram number I will refer to in the tutorial.


The circled numbers 1,2,3,4 and 5 indicate the possession of the player.   1 = point guard; 2 = shooting guard; 3 = small forward; 4 = power forward; and 5 = center.  If this will make it any easier, consider these Commodores for the numbers:


1: Alex Gordon or Mario Moore

2: Shan Foster or Dan Cage

3: Derrick Byars or Demarre Carroll

4: Julian Terrell or Demarre Carroll

5: Ted Skuchas, Julian Terrell, Alan Metcalfe, or Davis Nwankwo


Diagram 1 

Diagram #1: Let's look at one possibility from what I call the 12 formation.   The center trails and runs to his low post spot away from the 4.  The point guard brings the ball up the floor and looks to pass to the 3 on the wing.   This keys the 4 to come up to the elbow on the high post and make himself a target for the ball.  3 fades down a few feet to establish better spacing.


Diagram 2


Diagram #2: 4 now has the ball at the elbow.   This is an advantageous spot for any offense to have the ball, as every teammate is a possible receiver of the next pass.  The best possible scenario at this point is for the 5 to attempt a power move and get open for the pass and easy shot; this is the infamous "high-low" pass you may have heard mentioned several times in games.


If the high-low is not available, there are still more fine options.  After passing to 4, 1 can screen down for 3, but the better option for this offense is for 1 to decoy this screening motion with 3.  Just before it appears that 3 will accept that screen and probably spot up for a three-pointer, he V-cuts hard and slides backdoor into the lane.   Vandy has burned its opposition several times with this "cat-and-mouse game." 


If 3 is not open on this backdoor attempt, most of the time 1 will be open from behind the arc.   4 can pass to 1 for the trey.  He can also pass to 2 who has moved to the top of the key.  2's main responsibility in this movement is to act as the safety man should the opposition gain possession of the ball.   If 1 shoots, 3, 4, and 5 are in advantageous offensive rebounding position.


I forgot to mention that 4 can just as easily shoot the jumper or try to beat his man to the basket.   Julian Terrell has shown how competent he can be with this option.


 Diagram 3

Diagram #3: Here we have more of the true Princeton Offense at work.   This is the 23 alignment, the one where Steve Goodrich became the best passing big men in the Ivy League since former Tiger Kit Mueller.  It starts with 4 trailing with 1 as 2 and 3 align at the wings and 5 aligns at the high post.


1 feeds the ball to 3 on the wing and cuts off 5.  4 delays just a fraction of a second and crosses around 5 to the play-side low post.   This is also part of the UCLA high post offense known as the scissors cross.  If either 1 or 4 is open on this move, then 3 can hit either for the power move.   3 can also attempt to beat his defender one on one.  If not, 5, steps out to the top of the key and provides a pass outlet for 3.


Diagram 4


Diagram #4: 5 has the ball after 3 passed to him in the previous diagram.   5 begins a dribble toward the elbow, while 3 runs behind him and receives a hand-off pass just behind the arc.  5 rolls down the lane looking for a pass from 3 if he's open.   1 and 4 clear out to give that option a chance.  3 drives down the lane with the option of going the distance for a crip, passing to 5 on the roll, or spotting 1 for a three-pointer.   2 moves to the point for balance and as a defensive safety.  If for any reason 3 cannot attempt his dribble drive, 2 would come up to meet 3 and continue the offense to the other side.


Diagram 5 

Diagram #5: This option is keyed by a direct hand-off from 1 to a wing (in this example 2).   1 replaces 2 after handing him the ball.  2 dribbles back to the point, where 3 comes off a moving screen by 4 to ask for the ball.   5 tries to post his defender at this point; if he is open, either 2 or 3 can pass him the ball.  4 moves toward the baseline 16 to 18 feet away from the basket.


Diagram 6


Diagram #6: This is the way this play progresses if 4 is being aggressively guarded.   3 dribbles toward the perimeter, "chasing" 2.  When 2 sees this, he cuts hard to the basket, as 5 slides up to the elbow.   If 2 is open, 3 feeds him with a one-handed bounce pass for the lay-up.  If 2 doesn't get the ball, he circles out wide to the three-point line behind 4.   4 gives a fake to the arc, then cuts hard backdoor looking for a bounce pass from 3.

 Diagram 7

Diagram #7:   This is the way diagram #5 progresses if 4 is loosely covered by a defender who has sagged into the middle.  3 makes his dribble toward the point as 5 appears to set a screen for him.   2 has already attempted his backdoor cut and didn't receive the ball.  4 sees this and comes up to receive a hand-off from 3.   This opens up the lane.  4 dribbles off the screen set by 5, while 1 sets his man up for embarrassment.  Up to this point, he has not been involved with the play.   The split second 1 sees his defender give any amount of attention to 4 dribbling toward him, 1 cuts hard backdoor.  This move has made Mario Moore a hero the previous two seasons.

 Diagram 8

Diagram #8:   This is the way diagram #7 progresses if 1 cannot go backdoor due to loose coverage.  4 has finished his drive around 5, and 5 rolls to the basket.   4 can pass to 5 if he is open or look to 1 or 3 for the open jumper.  For this example, let's say he reverses the ball to 3.  If the defense is sagging, as 1's defender has shown, that reverse pass to the wing will frequently find the player open for the jumper.   Shan Foster has profited from this type of pass.  4 heads down the away-side block for a possible offensive rebound (the Demarre Carroll special).   3 can shoot, pass to 2 in the corner, or pass to 1 coming out to the key.  He can also spot 5 if the center can work his way free.


Diagrams 9 & 10


If you remember Princeton's shocking upset over defending national champion UCLA in the opening round of the 1996 NCAA Tournament, you will see a similar move in this diagram.   In the Princeton-UCLA game, it was Gabe Lewullis who burned Charles O'Bannon with nearly the same move that we will see 1 make in diagrams 9 and 10.

 Diagram 9

Diagram #9: 1 peppers the ball to 5 who has come out high to the top of the key.   He completes the give-and-go move by sprinting to the basket looking for a return pass if he has an opening.  2, 3, and 4 clear out to give him room to operate.

 Diagram 10

Diagram #10: If 1 was not open, 5 discontinues eye movement in that direction to watch 3 set a screen for 4.   4 comes up high to offer himself as a safety valve should 5 get in trouble.  Meanwhile 2 appears to set a similar pick for 1 coming out to the perimeter.   This is a typical basketball move, and many defenders are lulled into this ploy, expecting this move and trying to prevent this pass.  1 has just attempted an inside move, so it's only logical he will come out to the perimeter.  


Think again Einstein defender.  The second you overplay this move, 1 is going to repeat his cut back to the inside spot and burn you in front of 13,000 Commodore fans.   Both Mario Moore and Alex Gordon have pulled off this gem of a play.  It even worked in the dreadful Cincinnati game earlier this season.


Diagrams 11 & 12


This is a real sucker play.  Not one, but two perimeter players are going to cut backdoor within a second of each other.   Derrick Byars has already shown how well he can make this move, and it's something to keep an eye on if he continues to score a bevy of points.


Diagram 11


Diagram #11: 1 begins this option by driving down the sideline.   2 sees 1 driving toward him and like many offenses with a dribble-chase, 2 vacates the area.  This time, he does so by using 5 as a pick.   This is the basic move of the flex offense, and I think it is the best part of Vandy's current options.  If 2 is open, 1 can feed him for an excellent chance at a conventional three-point play.


Diagram 12


Diagram #12: 2 was not open, so he continues around to the opposite perimeter.   As he clears out, 4 quickly cuts backdoor looking for the ball, while 3 moves up the key looking for a possible trey.  Most of the time, these moves will be defended; 4's defender will sag quickly into the lane and follow him around 5, while 3's defender will play him tight taking away the open look.   If 3 times his move just right, waiting until the last moment before his defender finishes his move to cut off the open look, 3 can beat that defender backdoor just a second or so after 4 tried his backdoor move.   It's lightning striking in the same spot twice and defenses are not expecting this move.


Plusses and Minuses


Every offense and defense in basketball has advantages and disadvantages.  This offense is no different.  The raw number of disadvantages outweigh the advantages, but each advantage is worth more than each disadvantage.




1. This offense has all the major requirements of competent basketball principles, namely excellent floor balance and multiple moves toward the basket.


2. This offense combines some of the best moves of the Shuffle, UCLA High Post, Wheel, Swing, and Motion offenses.   Players can pick and choose which moves to make by reading the defense during the play.  Whichever ploy the defense tries is, in theory, the wrong one.


3. If the offense has competent passers in the game, the spread formation isolates each defender and forces the defense to play an honest man-to-man with little chance to play help and recover.   If they try this, someone is going to be left wide open.  A double team can be exploited quickly if the offense isn't rattled.


4. This offense puts great pressure on the opponents to not get behind.  They will worry that it will be impossible to catch up once they are behind by eight points.  It is the wishbone offense of football.




1. Multiple options every couple of seconds means each player must think before acting.   It can slow down reactions and actually grind the entire offense to a halt.


2. While this offense has multiple options in theory, most of the time each player ends up concentrating on two or three "pet" options.   It allows opponents to discover tendencies and predict what will happen once they observe certain keys.


3. The power forward and center are frequently too far away from the basket to have a chance at an offensive rebound.   The offensive rebound is consistently the best scoring opportunity in basketball, and the best offensive rebounding teams are usually the best overall.  


3a. If either  4 or 5 cannot hit the 16-20 foot jumper, the defensive post players can sag in the lane and take away most of the backdoor opportunities.   Low post play doesn't develop as well as other offenses either.


4. Since the perimeter players post up as much if not more than the inside players, any missed shot and defensive rebound gives the opponents a better chance of succeeding with a fast break.   The offense's faster players must run farther than normal to stop the fast break.


5. A good pressure defense can take a team out of their offense.  This offense gives the defense a better than average chance to do so.   If the ball handler is harassed enough, he will never see or never have the chance to pass to the open teammate cutting backdoor.


6.  If the outside shot isn't falling, the defense only needs to sag into the middle to shut off most of the other options.   Teams will tend to live and die by the jump shot when they use this offense.  It makes it much more difficult to beat a quality opponent on the road, where a good inside game is vitally important.


7. Without a complimentary transition game, this offense seldom obtains many cheap baskets.   All baskets have to be earned the hard way.  When two teams are evenly matched, more often than not the game is won by the team that comes up with the most cheap baskets (points off transition, offensive rebounds, etc.)


8. Like the wishbone offense in football, this offense is not the best come-from-behind offense (it is quite poor in this respect).   Most teams must rely on another plan when they have to play catch up.


How To Defend The Backdoor Offense


There are two different trains of thought when coaches try to install a defensive game plan against the backdoor offense.   Many coaches will employ either a sinking and floating man-to-man, a man-to-man with zone principles, or an inside conscious zone defense.  They force the offense to beat them from the outside and take away the inside.   This is more successful when the backdoor offense team must go on the road.  Playing on its home floor, this type of defense doesn't work that often.


My favorite plan of attack against this offense is to pressure it relentlessly.   I would play a several different full-court presses against it.  One type would be used to force the offense to take 12 to 15 seconds to get the ball to the point where they can start their options.   Another press could be used to speed up the game and take the opponent out of their normal tempo.  Yet another press could be used to wear down the players who will be attempting the backdoor moves.   I would double up on the ball and play the remaining defenders in a ball-you-man placement.  It might give up a few extra open backdoor moves, but most of the time, the man with the ball isn't going to be able to complete the pass through the double team and three more defenders in the passing lanes.


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