BELOIT, Wis. — In the silence of a visitor’s locker room, beneath floorboards reverberating with bass-thumping halftime music and a curious crowd, father and son carefully search for the right words. Their team’s confidence is fragile. Still, they preach the value of belief to a group of frustrated college basketball players who have clanked shots from every angle and just completed their worst half of the season.
Belief here is vital. Belief that constant full-court pressure and quickly exchanging open layups for 3-point attempts is the best method for success. Belief that substituting in five-man shifts every 30 seconds will wear down the opponent. Belief that shots will drop and “The System” will prevail again.
Even at Division III Grinnell College, the highest-scoring basketball program in the country, players sometimes need a reminder that the radical method they’re employing is not crazy.
“As a freshman, I learned it’s pretty easy to fall into a sense of doubt about The System,” Grinnell senior guard Jesse Ney says. “That these guys on other teams just aren’t going to get tired and they’re going to keep finishing anyway. When a team is making like 65, 68 percent from the field every game, you start to lose a little faith.”
David Arseneault Sr., the 59-year-old mastermind behind his team’s frenetically paced, run-and-gun arrangement, knows better than to give in to such a silly notion. He pulls a pair of spectacles from his pocket and places them over the bridge of his nose, holding a piece of paper containing the first-half box score in his left hand.
Some statistics, Arseneault Sr. has learned over the years, are meaningless. Others mean more to Grinnell than any team in the nation. He lays into his players about their offensive performance as they trail Beloit College, 47-38, singling out the 3-point specialists whose shots have repeatedly fallen flat.
“We could not have had a worse statistical half, and we’re only down by nine,” Arseneault Sr. says. “Seriously. That’s a gift. Let’s take advantage of it. They’re going to get a little tired.”
They. Will. Tire.
This is a mantra Grinnell players hear often from both Arseneault Sr. and his son, Dave Arseneault. Jr., the team’s associate head coach. A 2009 Grinnell graduate, Dave Jr. led the nation in assists all four seasons he played and was a three-time finalist for the Bob Cousy Award as college basketball’s best point guard.
“They’re going to get tired,” reiterates Dave Jr., who has heard the same words hundreds of times from his father. “We’re not better than another team’s first five. We should be down 10 points 10 minutes through the first half. That’s why the game is 40 minutes. That’s what The System is designed to do. It’s designed to wear people down.”
Thanks to a brand of basketball that is innovative, thrilling, unorthodox and, yes, controversial, this small-town Iowa school 50 miles east of Des Moines has captured the attention of a country. Three months ago, Grinnell guard Jack Taylor set an NCAA record by scoring 138 points in a single game, further propelling the program into the national limelight — for better and worse.
The System is a style loved by those with new-school hoops sensibilities and detested by basketball purists for warping and distorting statistics that once seemed essential to the game.
Grinnell allows more points than any team in the country (96.4 per game), ranks dead last in field-goal percentage defense (.550), ranks among the worst in rebound margin (minus-8.2) and ranks 212th in 3-point shooting percentage (.334).
And yet this season Grinnell is 17-5, including 14-4 in conference play. The Pioneers have turned the game on its head by forcing turnovers while taking and making 3-pointers at a rate unmatched by anyone. They are averaging 113.4 points per game — 19 more than any team in Division III.
“It’s crazy,” Ney says. “Honestly, sometimes you just look at the score sheet like, ‘How the hell did we just pull that out?’”
Back in the locker room, Grinnell’s players gather near the entrance for one last huddle. They clap in unison, race out the door and up a flight of stairs to the court. Their faith in The System will be put to the test for another half, when conventional and chaos clash.
Opponents aren’t the only people to leave gymnasiums across the Midwest scratching their heads at what Grinnell has accomplished. Arseneault Sr. himself still marvels how an experiment that had absolutely nothing to do with winning basketball games could turn the Pioneers into perennial contenders for Midwest Conference championships.
“I think it’s hilarious,” he says. “We did it without question more to give the kids something positive to talk about when we were getting beat as opposed to a strategy to win. We still watch game films and say, ‘My gosh, we actually won this game? Our shot selection is horrible, we’re giving up layups, we’re fouling like crazy. The other team is having extended runs on us.’
“If you’re just a novice observer, you would say, ‘God, your team is getting killed.’ You look at the end and we win. I haven’t quite figured out why.”
When Arseneault Sr. arrived in Grinnell with his wife, Ellie, son Dave Jr. and daughter Jennie in 1989, the program hadn’t produced a winning season in 26 years. But he took a leap of faith that he could change the culture after spending two years coaching women’s basketball at now-defunct Hawthorne College in New Hampshire.
Arseneault Sr., a native of Stoneham, Mass., soon realized that basketball was of little importance at the private liberal arts school tucked away amid the cornfields, where the average ACT score for incoming freshmen is 30. Students were more apt to pull all-nighters at the library than shoot pull-up jumpers on the court until midnight.
During his first season, he preached discipline, working harder on defense than offense and milking the clock for good shots. Before he became a revolutionary, he was a traditionalist.
The Pioneers finished 3-19 that season. The few players who remained were mentally drained. Arseneault Sr. decided he needed to make a choice: Leave Grinnell or try something drastic to increase participation and make it fun.
“The kids just weren’t buying into the discipline,” he says. “It seemed like once we had our playing rotations established, if they weren’t in it, they were coming up with unique ways to quit the team. We were finishing the season with less people than we needed to have for practices.”
Arseneault Sr. had admired Paul Westhead’s up-tempo teams at Loyola Marymount in the late 1980s and wondered if he could take that pace to an entirely new level. So during the 1991-92 season, his third with Grinnell, Arseneault Sr. began experimenting with full-court pressure, mass substitutions and shooting a high rate of 3-pointers. A system was born.
By the 1993-94 season, The System was ready to be unleashed full-bore. Arseneault Sr. later convinced two students to participate in a two-credit study charting The System and producing a mathematical formula for success.
What arose from the study was a list of five goals to achieve each game. When Grinnell hits those marks, Arseneault Sr. estimates the team wins 95 percent of its games:
• Take 94 or more shots
• Take 25 more shots than your opponent
• Take at least half your shots from 3-point range
• Force 32 turnovers
• Collect offensive rebounds on 33 percent of your missed shots
Players were instructed to full-court press, substitute in five-man shifts at nearly every dead ball, shoot every 12 seconds and surrender a layup for the opportunity to get the ball back for a 3-point attempt. Arseneault Sr. soon discovered other teams couldn’t keep pace with his 15-player rotation, particularly when subs with less experience played to provide starters a rest.
The amazing part? It worked better than he ever imagined.
Grinnell has led the nation in scoring in 17 of the past 19 seasons and ranked No. 1 in made 3-pointers in 15 of the past 19 seasons. The Pioneers also have won five conference championships and are in the hunt for a sixth.
“My dad, a lot of people consider him a genius, myself being one of them,” Arseneault Jr. says. “To come up with a system where we’ve been able to compete and be successful and make a name for ourselves — I don’t want to hate on our own guys but without having near the talent level that a lot of other programs have.
“We’re certainly not winning national championships, nor would we be any time soon. But when I think about where we would be without this system, it’s incredible how much more advanced we are with it.”
A teenage girl wearing blue jeans and a red Wisconsin hoodie timidly approaches Jack Taylor near the front steps of a row of bleachers. She is clutching a copy of Sports Illustrated, the pages bent back to the beginning of a story featuring Taylor’s face staring into the lens and holding an iPad that reads “138”.
“Hi, can I have your autograph?” she asks.
This has become Taylor’s way of life in the last three months. When you set an NCAA record by scoring 138 points in a single college basketball game, people gravitate in your direction. In Grinnell, local pubs name hamburgers after him. During road games, fans want to bring home tangible proof of his existence.
“My life has forever changed,” says Taylor, whose record performance came Nov. 20 against Faith Baptist Bible College. “It feels like I woke up kind of in a different world after that where people know my name, people come up to you and give you weird looks.”
Plenty of good has come out of that single night when Taylor took 108 shots and made 27 of 71 3-point attempts. He received more than 300 interview requests the following day and did interviews with “SportsCenter” and the “Dan Patrick Show” and appeared on ABC’s “Good Morning America” and NBC’s “Today Show.” Teammates talked to the Boston Globe and USA Today. Grinnell basketball garnered international headlines.
But in an era in which sportsmanship and controversial decisions are discussed instantly on social media and elsewhere, people across the country harshly judged Taylor and Grinnell basketball. Taylor says he received hate-filled messages on his Facebook page calling him selfish, and the team’s coaches faced scorn through emails and office voicemails for weeks.
Outraged fans and media members wanted to know what purpose it served to embarrass a hapless opponent — Grinnell crushed Faith Baptist, 179-104, and led by 39 points at halftime — and why teammates and coaches would allow this kind of one-man show, eschewing open layups to pass back out to Taylor for 3.
The popular sports entertainment website Deadspin.com posted an article entitled: “D-III Player’s 138-Point Game Is A Sham Record And Shouldn’t Be Celebrated By Anyone.” In the story, the writer described Grinnell’s system as “a complete bastardization of basketball.” Many others felt the same way. Perhaps some saw it as karma when Taylor later broke his wrist during a January game.
“There was a lot of backlash,” says Taylor, whose injury has sidelined him for the season. “It was negative, but they didn’t really understand what The System was about. They were saying how selfish I was, but they didn’t realize that it wasn’t me being selfish. It was the team being unselfish. I couldn’t have broken the record without them passing me the ball every time down the court. So it was a team effort.”
Still, his achievement didn’t occur by mere happenstance. Taylor’s performance was a calculated maneuver on Grinnell’s part. He says the coaching staff discussed his breaking the record over the summer, following his transfer from the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. Why? To see how far The System could take an individual and a team if it was pushed to its extreme.
It wasn’t the first time Grinnell had chased after and attained a record at the expense of its opponent.
Just last season, the Pioneers attempted the same one-man show with guard Griffin Lentsch, who set a then-Division III scoring record with 89 points against Principia College. In 2007, Dave Arseneault Jr. set an NCAA record with 34 assists in a game by playing in 10-minute shifts rather than coming out for normal substitution patterns. And in 1998, guard Jeff Clement scored 77 points in one game for Grinnell by making 19 of 52 3-pointers and playing all 40 minutes to ensure he would win the Division III individual scoring title.
“I never crossed halfcourt that game,” Clement recalls. “I took twice as many shots as I would in a normal game. We were out of the playoff race, so coach gave us another goal in which to try to win the game first and foremost but also do it sort of creatively.”
Arseneault Sr. has heard the criticism for years. That he is tainting the sport. That he is teaching his players lessons in poor sportsmanship. Despite the backlash, he isn’t apologizing for Grinnell’s style of play.
“We do try and set records,” Arseneault Sr. says. “Some people think that’s really shallow. I think of the assist record when my son got it. When he got that record, and the attention he got from that, I’m telling you, the next 10 games that he played, he played better than he can. A lot of that is what ends up happening.
“Our guys walk around on campus like they’re something special. They’re very average, but they think they’re good, so they play better than they are.”
The controversial nature of The System hasn’t deterred coaches across the country from adopting it as their own. And perhaps that growth says more about Arseneault’s scheme than anything.
Gary Smith, the former basketball coach at Division III University of Redlands in California, remembers watching a game film of Grinnell in 2002 and falling in love with the style of play.
“It just takes your breath away,” Smith says. “That’s what a lot of fans say, too. They leave the gymnasium fatigued themselves just watching the game.”
Smith called Arseneault Sr. and the two quickly became friends. Arseneault Sr. invited Smith to Iowa to learn the intricacies of system ball.
In 2004-05, Redlands set a new single-season scoring record that still stands by averaging 132.4 points per game. The mark broke Grinnell’s record of 126.2 points per game established one season earlier.
Smith, for one, believes The System is invaluable because of the advantages it generates for multiple players to compete and build team chemistry. He says he knows of between 50 to 60 programs that use The System across the country, likely more, and Arseneault Sr. offers his knowledge to any coach who shows interest.
At the same time, implementing The System can be a dangerous proposition.
Evan Massey, a girls basketball coach at Galesburg High School in Illinois with 780 career victories, gave the The System a try in 2009. And in 2010-11, Galesburg set a state record for 3-pointers made (365) and came within one game of playing in the state semifinal. But this season, he abandoned The System halfway through the year because he didn’t have the right type of players.
Massey says when shots don’t fall, the personnel doesn’t fit or a lack of depth materializes, results become embarrassing and the backlash can be overwhelming. That is why doubt remains as to whether it could ever work at higher levels of college basketball — the consequences of failure are simply too great.
“You look like you have no fundamentals because you’re jacking up 3s and giving up so many layups,” Massey says. “Anybody that’s a basketball purist struggles with some of the aspects of that. In that way, it can become a lightning rod. Certainly at the high school level, it’s a good way to get fired.”
Grinnell’s players emerge from the stairwell and run onto the floor for second-half warmups. They do not bother with layup lines. Instead, they shoot 3-pointers — what else? — hoping three minutes of extra practice will cure their woes.
But the halftime speeches and warmups do little to slow Beloit’s efficient offensive onslaught. The Pioneers creep within six points only to fall behind by double digits less than a minute later. It appears Grinnell’s relentless pressure and carrousel of player substitutions won’t break through this time.
When Beloit’s Grant Henrickson sinks two free throws with 9:45 remaining, Grinnell faces its largest deficit of the game at 73-58.
Then, something remarkable happens that Arseneault Sr. has seen many times before. He has won enough games this way to sense it coming.
They. Will. Tire.
Grinnell’s Aaron Levin cans a 3-pointer. The Pioneers force a turnover and bury a second long ball. A missed Beloit layup helps Jesse Ney hit a 3, and another turnover leads to a Levin 3-pointer. Suddenly, the deficit is down to three points. Beloit’s players appear in a panic, eyes darting between the dwindling lead on the scoreboard and the wave of Pioneers substitutions at the scorer’s table.
Grinnell’s confidence soars. The System is working.
“In the first 30 minutes, we don’t really even care about the score,” Lentsch says. “If we’re up, it helps obviously. But in the last five or 10 minutes, it’s winning time.”
Lenstch, the man who scored 89 points in one game last season, swishes a 3-pointer in the left corner with 51 seconds remaining. He is fouled on the play and calmly hits the free throw to tie the game at 95-95.
Henrickson immediately grabs the ball out of bounds underneath Grinnell’s basket and scans the court for an opening. He throws a low pass through a sea of flailing arms and double-teams that touches no one and skids into the bleachers. Grinnell ball.
The Pioneers spread the court, working the ball through the high-post man whose back is to the basket. His sole purpose is to find the next open 3-point shooter despite the defense sagging off in a 2-3 zone and daring him to take an uncontested 2-pointer. He spots Ney just to the right of the top of the key and hits him in stride. Ney rises up and nails a long 3-pointer to put Grinnell ahead, 98-95, with 27 seconds remaining. It is Grinnell’s first lead since early in the first half.
Dazed Beloit players hang their heads, and Grinnell holds on for a 102-98 victory. Fifteen Pioneers playing in short bursts have wilted the wills — and legs — of another more talented opponent and its nine-player rotation.
In the visitor’s locker room, the silence erupts into cheers. Players wait for both Arseneaults to walk through the doorway and surround them, bouncing up and down. Arseneault Sr. and his son smile.
“You never quit,” Arseneault Jr. says. “An incredible battle back.”
Players’ belief in The System has been reaffirmed. Others may doubt the method, but they can’t dispute the joy it has brought to this room.
A trail of Grinnell players throw on their warmup tops and sweatshirts, bracing for the cold walk to the team bus. They will rumble through the night back to Iowa and prepare for the next challenge with added conviction. The task will remain the same as always — to perfect chaos 40 minutes at a time.
Follow Jesse Temple on Twitter.
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