Sunday, March 6, 2016

I'm back, and here is why I haven't been here

So hopefully you noticed I haven’t been posting much. And just as hopefully, if not just as realistically, you actually missed reading about The System and how my favorite teams fared this season.
I had a very good reason for my absence – I actually had a small hand in helping a team employ this amazing style of basketball!
In case you hadn’t heard, I kept statistics for my local high school, Richmond (Co.) Senior High in Rockingham, N.C., as it ran The System for the first time. I graduated from the school in 1987 and was a member of the basketball team for my final two years, so I had a particular pride in being a part of the transition.
How did we do? Well, before getting into my thoughts, I guess I will start with where we ended. Our final record was 18-9, which included a 7-3 mark in the Class 4-A Southeastern Conference. We tied with Hoke County for the regular season conference title and later beat the Bucks in the conference tournament championship game – we lost both of our games to them during the regular season, so they hosted the title game as the top seed.
That put us in the North Carolina High School Athletic Association state tournament, where we beat Greensboro Smith 87-80 in the opening round before losing the next game at top-seeded North Meck 109-84.
All in all, a good year. I should also mention we averaged 97.4 points, which was the second-highest total in the country according to MaxPreps. We actually led this stat for about a month until Findlay Prep, a private school from the Las Vegas area, passed us in the final week. In our 28 games, we topped 100 points 10 times, including five in SEC play, and we scored 102.3 points per game in the conference.
Our highest point total came in a 126-95 victory at home over Purnell Swett, and in the conference tournament championship game, we won by a final of 113-106. Four of our games featured a running clock in the second half when we were able to build a lead of at least 40 points. Our loss in the final game was our largest margin of defeat; in the other eight, the average deficit was 5.5 points.
Just as importantly to me, a guy who rode the pine a bunch during my brief career, we got it done with everyone contributing. In that game against Purnell Swett, seven of our players reached double figures. Of the 16 kids who dressed for our games at some point during the year, 15 of them scored at least 10 points in a game, and the other one had eight as his season high.
And in 11 of our 28 games, everyone who dressed scored at least a point. We had all 13 get on the board in the conference tournament title game.
Those are the numbers. Here are some of my observations as a System aficionado for nearly 15 years:

·       First and foremost, being a part of a team again was amazing. I went into this feeling a little bit like a (mad) scientist, really wanting to see us follow through all season to see what we could do. I had a detachment from the program, since I really didn’t know any of the players that well. But early on, our players and coaches became part of my family, and I a part of theirs. Seeing them succeed warmed my heart; seeing them struggle broke it.
·       I thoroughly enjoyed every minute of the play on the court. Sure, we lost nine games, including seven in which we led in the second half. That doesn’t diminish the excitement I have when thinking about our season.
·       I loved how hard all of our kids played. Gary Smith, longtime coach at the University of the Redlands who co-authored a book on how to coach The System, once told me this was a big reason why he ran it. He always wanted his players to give maximum effort, and he wanted to control how the game was played. No style does that like The System. Win or lose, our games featured constant up-and-down action, with very little down time. We never needed to worry what the other team was doing, because each opponent had to play our game. As I said, it didn’t always translate to victories; still, it was a comfort to know we had the final say in what occurred on the court.
·        Our energy on the bench was amazing. I’d been on teams in the past where the players on the end of the bench easily got distracted during games, since they knew they had little chance to see any meaningful minutes. Heck, I’ve probably been one of those players. But since everyone on our sideline was at most 1 minute away from getting back out there, no one had time to get bored. It was incredible.
·       Having said that, I’m sure it was difficult at first for our better players to feel as if they were “giving up” playing time. It is a credit to them I never saw anything in practice or games except full commitment. By the end of the season, they were believers. I’m sure winning helped that a bunch, as did their ability to perform at a high level and score.
·       Overall, from what I heard and saw, the reaction to The System was overwhelmingly positive. Several of our home fans went out of their way to tell me how much they enjoyed it, even as they admitted they’d never seen anything like it. After our opening loss in the Robeson County Shootout, someone in the stands asked me if we planned to play that way all season. I told him we did. He attended our game the next night against the host school, and I saw him at UNC Pembroke when we beat Red Springs for fifth place two days later. He told me, “I just had to watch y’all again.” Later in the season, when we came out on the court for the conference tournament championship game, one of the Hoke fans asked me if I thought we’d score 100 points. I told him, “I hope so.” He was so giddy. It was almost as if the circus had come to town, which I guess is a similar reaction folks had to Grinnell College when coach David Arseneault created The System.
·        Sure, there were those who didn’t appreciate it, but I knew it was because they didn’t understand what we were trying to do. And I’d heard enough complaints from friends over the years when I talked about The System that I was able to give most of this new criticism the attention it deserved (that is, none at all).
·       That’s not to say we did everything perfectly all the time. Running The System takes maximum effort ALL THE TIME, and 90 percent or even 95 percent isn’t enough. When we struggled, it mostly was from a loss of focus from one or more of our players. It didn’t happen often, and when it did, it wasn’t for very long, but sometimes it was enough to keep us from being successful.
·       I love the quote from Denzel Washington’s character Herman Boone in “Remember the Titans,” when he was describing his simplistic offense: “It’s like Novocain; give it a little time, and it’ll work.” I saw this time and again with The System during our season. We had a stretch late in the season where three of four games came down to the wire, and we trailed by double digits in two of them. At Lumberton, we were down 41-22 in the second quarter, scrambled back within 46-43 at halftime, then pulled out a 90-88 victory. In home games against Pinecrest, one in the regular season and one in the semifinal of the conference tournament, we trailed in the final 2 minutes before rallying to win. All three of these come-from-behind victories featured great play from our “finishing shift,” the five guys we thought gave us the best chance to win. They played roughly the final 3 minutes, and we used strategic timeouts to help them get the rest that The System demands.  
·       Not sure if was because of The System, but our guys always seemed to step up when we faced changes in our roster. In our second conference game, at home against Purnell Swett, we were down to 11 players. We even talked about the possibility of playing some zone if we found ourselves in foul trouble and unable to rotate shifts as we wanted. No worries. We went out and won 126-95 with seven players reaching double figures, as I previously wrote. The next game, we also were down to 11 guys, and led throughout in a 102-92 home victory over Lumberton. It dawned on us that everyone played better knowing when their shifts were coming, instead of waiting to hear me call it out. Looking back, that seems obvious, I guess, but it was an eye-opener to me. Once we locked everyone in to his role, we went on a little roll late in the season, winning seven of our final eight games.

That’s it. I am sure I left out something very important, but with the wonders of the Internet, I always can go back and edited this.

I would be remiss if I didn’t thank head coach David Laton, coach Donald Pettigrew Jr. and coach Bryan Hinson for allowing me to be a part of all this. And, certainly, a huge shoutout goes to each and every member of our team, who respectfully accepted me into their group. It was a great ride, I’m just sad it ended so soon.

Friday, January 9, 2015

More System action coming up Saturday, with all our teams in action

Another big weekend is on the horizon for teams running The System, and I figured I would my best to stick to this New Year’s Resolution to keep everyone better informed. Hopefully, this will go better than that whole “diet and exercise” thing …

Grinnell – NCAA Division III Men

The Pioneers snapped a three-game losing streak in their only game of the week, beating Lawrence 126-116 in the friendly confines of Darby Gym last Saturday. Jack Taylor led the way with 21 points and freshman Braedon Bayer added 18 in the effort.

Others reaching double figures included Luke Yeager (16 points), Ikaika Phillip (15) and Tague Zachary (11). Grinnell (3-3 Midwest Conference, 5-6 overall) finished 30-for-64 on 3-pointers and forced 23 turnovers, helping overcome Lawrence’s 69.4 percent shooting from the field.

It doesn’t get any easier for coach David Arseneault and his team. Ripon travels to Darby Gym on Saturday, with the tip scheduled for 4 p.m. EST. The Red Hawks are 6-1 in the MWC, a game behind leader St. Norbert.

Oh, and the Pioneers now are averaging 118 points.

North Central College – NCAA Division III Women

The streak rolls on for coach Michelle Roof and the Cardinals, who stand 13-0 (2-0 in the College Conference of Illinois & Wisconsin) after two victories since we last checked with them. They also are ranked 24th in the poll, the first time they’ve been recognized in that poll since 1999.

Last Saturday, North Central squeaked out a 59-56 victory over CCIW rival Illinois Wesleyan, the lowest point total of the season for Roof’s team. And the Cardinals trailed by 15 at one point in the second half before rallying back out front.

Tess Godhardt had 13 points to lead North Central, and Jamie Cuny added five points, six rebounds and six blocked shots.

Things went a little easier Wednesday for the Cardinals, who used a huge second half to run away from Millikan 95-75. Godhardt finished with 22 points and 11 rebounds, and Cuny had 16 points (four 3-pointers), 12 rebounds and six blocks. Mayson Whipple scored 14 points off the bench.

North Central faces its most difficult game of the season Saturday, traveling to No. 13 Wheaton. The game is scheduled to begin at 6 p.m. EST.

The 59 points against Illinois Wesleyan helped drop the Cardinals’ season average to 98.8 points.

Olivet Nazarene – NAIA Division II Women

In a return engagement with Indiana University-Northwest, the Tigers lost a game that was tight throughout 98-95, falling to 11-15 overall and 3-1 in the Chicagoland Collegiate Athletic Conference.

Abbey Hengesbach made a 3 with 27 seconds remaining to bring Olivet Nazarene within one, but Brooke Gardner converted two free throws to account for the final margin for IU-NW. Hengesbach scored 20 points to lead the Tigers and added seven rebounds and seven assists. Jayne Stuart had 15 points and Kayla Krassman and Ally Giampapa each finished with 14.

ONU’s game against conference rival Indiana University-South Bend was postponed Wednesday night because of some winter weather in the area, so coach Lauren Stamatis and her squad will get back at it Saturday at Judson University. That game is scheduled to begin at 2 p.m. EST.

Despite failing to reach at least 100 points for only the third time this season, the Tigers still are leading all of women’s basketball by averaging 110.9.

Sacramento State – NCAA Division I women

The Hornets might have turned their season around last Saturday with a thrilling 69-67 victory on the road against Big Sky Conference opponent Southern Utah. Sacramento State held the Thunderbirds scoreless for the final 3:39 of the game to avoid an 0-2 start in conference play.

Then on Thursday night, the Hornets led throughout and beat defending Big Sky champ North Dakota 93-86. Four players finished in double figures, including Hallie Gennett (18 points), Takara Burse (17), Gretchen Harrigan (16) and Brianna Burgos (16).

Sacramento State improved to 4-10 overall and 2-1 in the conference. It hosts North Colorado on Saturday, with the start scheduled for 5 p.m. EST.

Knox – NCAA Division III Women

The Prairie Fire went 1-1 in the past week, winning on the road at Ripon on Saturday 74-60 and losing a tough one Wednesday at home 108-100 to Cornell College. That still leaves coach Emily Cline’s team 5-6 overall and 3-3 in the Midwest Conference, a marked improvement from the previous three seasons with The System.

Jodi Marver led the way with 22 points against Ripon and Naja Woods had 14 against Cornell.

Knox is back on the road Saturday against Beloit. It is scheduled to start at 4 p.m. EST.

Reno Bighorns - NBA Development League

The team coached by Dave Arseneault Jr. is 0-2 so far this week, with another road game Saturday.

The Bighorns (8-9) lost at home to the Austin Spurs 138-134, then traveled to play the Rio Grand Valley Vipers on Thursday. That game was featured on ESPN's SportsCenter, as the two fasted teams in the D-League matched up.

The Vipers held on to win 159-155. Quincy Miller had 30 points and Brady Heslip added 27 in the loss.

Reno travels to Oklahoma City to face the Blue on Saturday, with the start scheduled for 8 p.m. EST.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Catching up with David Arseneault Jr. and the Reno Bighorns

Life in the NBA Development League is everything David Arseneault Jr. thought it would be.

“I’m having a blast,” the coach of the Reno Bighorns told me Monday night. “The level of athleticism and basketball skill I see every day is just incredible. To watch our System at full speed, with these guys going full speed, and to see how much ground they cover …”

He trailed off a bit there.

“I’m having a great time. It’s so much different that Division III, in the middle of Iowa at Grinnell College, that I really don’t know how to explain the difference.”

So far, so good for perhaps the grandest of experiments with the frenetically fast-paced style of basketball created by Arseneault’s father, David Sr., at aforementioned NCAA D-III Grinnell College more than 20 years ago. The younger Arseneault helped run the basketball program at the school in the five years since he graduated and no longer was eligible to be the team’s point guard.

His hiring by the Sacramento Kings to coach their affiliate in Reno turned some heads, but that hardly compares to the buzz about the Bighorns (8-7) through their first 15 games.

  • They average 141.3 points
  • They average 19 3-pointers on 50 attempts
  • Eight of the current 10 players on the roster average double figures
  • They reached a season high in points during Saturday night's 174-169 victory over the Los Angeles D-Fenders, a game in which the D-Fenders scored a D-League record 98 points in the first half
  • They gave up a D-League record 175 points to Los Angeles on Dec. 20, a game in which the D-Fenders scored 56 points in the first quarter, also a record
The exploits of Reno guard Brady Heslip deserves a few paragraphs of their own. He leads the league with 27.7 points per game and is shooting 50 percent from beyond the arc. Oh, and that’s on an average of about 14 attempts, too, so he is incredibly accurate at a high volume.

How to quantify his shooting so far? Well, since the NBA adopted the 3-point line for the 1979-80 season, a player has made at least 10 shots from behind the line in 20 games. Heslip has done so three times this season in 13 games, and his total of 13 against Idaho on Nov. 29 is one more than the NBA record that Kobe Bryant shares with Donyell Marshall.

Again, all this has come 13 games into his professional career.

“He’s got a special gift,” Arseneault said of Heslip. “I’ve still yet to see any two of his shots look different, whether he’s coming off a screen, or shooting off the dribble, or in transition. His release of the ball is the same.

“When he’s shooting after practice, he will keep backing up until he’s almost at halfcourt, and his form doesn’t change at all. It’s unbelievable.”

Anytime a player puts up crazy numbers in The System – no matter if it’s Heslip making 13 3s or Grinnell’s Jack Taylor scoring 138 points in a single game – there is a backlash against this style of play. Arseneault isn’t worried about that; his only concern is doing what he can to help Heslip get to the next level.

“I think he’s making my System look good, and I think I’m helping him look good,” Arseneault said. “He’s a darn good right wing in our System, but if scouts say they want to see him handle the ball more, then what I can try to do is put him in positions on the floor where he’s got to handle the ball.”

Perhaps the biggest drawback with coaching in the D-League is that Arseneault doesn’t know from day to day who might be available for his team’s next game; Heslip flirted with leaving for a team in Turkey as recently as last week. And as Arseneault spoke to me Monday night, about 24 hours prior to Reno’s home game against the Austin Spurs, he wasn’t certain he would have Heslip, or Quincy Miller, or any of the other players on his roster for that one.

That’s because NBA teams have the added option of a 10-day contract, which became available Monday, so callups can happen at any moment. That will leave Arseneault particularly anxious on a four-game road trip beginning Thursday night at the Rio Grande Valley Vipers.

“It’s eye-opening,” Arseneault said. “There’s just so many variables, so many moving parts, and that’s what makes it difficult. It keeps you on your toes, and keeps me thinking, trying to be creative in what we do with our lineups and our plans. Ultimately, it will help me as a coach.”

The Bighorns will play the upcoming road games in a span of six days, leaving Rio Grande and heading to Oklahoma City before a trip to Austin, Texas. The final game is in Fort Wayne, Ind., before returning to Reno for a home game against the Westchester Knicks.

And unlike NBA teams, those in the D-League travel using commercial airlines, which can be tricky.

“The trips certainly are tough for a lot of guys, like our center, Sim Bhullar, who is 7-feet-4 and weighs about 350 pounds,” Arseneault said. “It’s not easy, and it takes a lot of time. We are losing hours any time we head east from Reno.

“The second battle is we’ll only be traveling with 10 guys. So unless we get a player assigned from Sacramento, those are the only guys we’ll have to at our disposal. That makes it interesting, too.”

For now, Arseneault likes what he sees on his roster, including recent additions Quincy Miller and Jordan Hamilton, both of whom have NBA experience. Obviously, they want to get back up there as soon as possible, with Heslip and others simply looking for their first opportunity.

“When you add two guys as talented as Quincy and Jordan, that dominoes to other people who now aren’t getting quite as many looks or even guys who were playing and they’re not even on our roster,” Arseneault said. “There’s a fine line between getting talented guys and trying to validate our team chemistry.

“Some of these guys, their careers are on the line, and sometimes they might think, or they’ve been told, the best way to get noticed is to score as much as possible. That’s not actually the case. We’ve tried to help them realize that the ones getting called up are from winning teams, so we have to move the ball.”

Another player who has flourished in The System is forward David Wear, twin brother of Travis, who currently plays for the New York Knicks. David Wear was in training camp with the Kings and assigned to Reno when he was cut.

At UCLA, where he and his brother transferred after one season at North Carolina, David Wear was a solid post player not relied upon for much scoring. He averaged 6.5 points and 3.8 rebounds as a senior for the Bruins, and showed good shooting range by making 23-of-53 from the 3-point line.

David Wear has improved on that with the Bighorns. In 13 games (he missed two with turf toe), he is averaging 18.2 points and 7.2 rebounds while making 45  percent of his 3s. And that’s on 98 attempts.

Coincidentally, he’s made 44 3-pointers and 44 2-pointers, which just might make him the most statistically perfect System player on the roster.

“He told me he hasn’t felt like this since he was in high school,” Arseneault said. “In college, he always was sort of a glue guy who wasn’t known for looking for his shot. I’ve asked him to step up his scoring and that’s given him the opportunity to do this.

“I’m a firm believer that about 75-to-90 percent of shooting is mental. He has confidence in his abilities. He’s a big part of what we’re doing, not to mention he’s just a great guy who is a complete gentleman, a real professional.”

As can be expected, Arseneault has kept in touch with his father, speaking daily about what he has already seen and what he wants to see. Grinnell is off to its usual high-scoring start, leading all college teams with an average of 118 points through 11 games.

And while he misses working daily with the players at Grinnell, the younger Arseneault plans to enjoy his challenge in Reno.

“I miss the kids,” Arseneault said. “I wasn’t looking to get away from Grinnell, and I wouldn’t have left if I couldn’t have been a part of something that still encouraged experimenting and doing things differently. I still pinch myself that I’m able to do that here.

“I think it’s good for my development. I know the program at Grinnell is in great hands, and I know I can always go back."

Friday, January 2, 2015

New Year's Resolution -- Keep everyone updated about our teams!

Well, it’s that time of year. Time to put away the decorations and let life get back to normal, time to get serious about the NFL and time to turn our attention to conference play in hoops, both college and high school.

This also is the time for New Year’s resolutions, and one of my many is to do a better job for the teams I care the most about (not that it matters to them). So here’s a weekend primer for our teams running The System, with a look back at their seasons so far and what is coming up in the next few days. Best of luck to everyone!

Grinnell – NCAA Division III Men

The Pioneers lost their final three games before Christmas break and sit at 4-6 overall, 2-3 in the Midwest Conference. They had won three in a row before then, and the ups and downs should be somewhat expected since coach David Arseneault has a roster featuring 11 freshmen.

With all those newbies, seniors Jack Taylor and Luke Yeager still are around, and they’re leading the way so far. Taylor leads NCAA Division III with 31.6 points per game and Yeagar is third at 26.9, and each has a handful of monster performances.

Taylor has a season high of 52 points and scored 43 in Grinnell’s final game before the break, a disappointing home loss to Simpson College. The Pioneers led by 16 points at halftime, then were outscored 61-42 after the break to lose 104-101. Yeager went off for 50 in a loss at William Penn and had 36 in another game.

Grinnell leads all divisions in scoring (again) with an average of 117.3 points and is tops in a couple of other categories, as well: 3-pointers made and attempted (206-for-584 from beyond the); and offensive rebounds (214). Since Coach A and his team have played 10 games, averaging those figures is simple enough even for me.

The Pioneers return to action Saturday by hosting MWC opponent Lawrence at 4 p.m. EST.

North Central College – NCAA Division III Women

You’ve already heard a bit about North Central, which improved to 11-0 this week with a 106-65 victory on the road at Eureka College. That was the fifth consecutive game the Cardinals scored at least 100 points, which tied an NCAA D-III record, and their 80 3-point attempts in that one broke their own mark set earlier this season.

So far this season, North Central is averaging an all-division best 102.5 points while making 16.2 3s per game, also tops among all NCAA divisions. Tess Godhardt continues to pace the offense with 18.2 points in each contest, with six other players averaging at least 7.2 points. The balance remains strong for coach Michelle Roof.

Now it gets even harder. The Cardinals open play in the College Conference of Illinois & Wisconsin on Saturday when Illinois Wesleyan rolls into Gregory Arena, with the game scheduled to start at 6 p.m. EST.

Olivet Nazarene – NAIA Division II Women

The Tigers have won eight of their past nine games to improve to 11-4 overall and 3-1 in the Chicagoland Collegiate Athletic Conference, with a final non-conference game Saturday on the road at Indiana University-Northwest.

Transfer Abbey Hengesbach continues to make herself right at home in The System, filling up the stat sheet each game: 24.1 points, 6.2 rebounds, 5.4 assists and 4.3 assists. She is joined in double figure scoring by Jayne Stuart (12.1 points), Kayla Krassman (10.7) and Ally Giampapa (10.2).

Olivet Nazarene leads all women’s teams in scoring – that’s NAIA or NCAA, all divisions – with 111.9 points per game. All this scoring comes from an average of 16.4 3-pointers, thanks to a pace created by an average of 21.5 steals. Both of those figures all lead all of women’s hoops, too.

After Saturday’s game, the Tigers get back into CCAC action by hosting Indiana-South Bend on Wednesday at McHie Arena.

Sacramento State – NCAA Division I women

The only Division I team playing The System is struggling this season, thanks to a brutal schedule that featured only three home games through the first 13 games. That included trips to Pac 12 opponents California, Oregon State, UCLA and Southern Cal.

The Hornets are 2-10 and 0-1 in the Big Sky Conference after losing 64-60 at Northern Arizona on Thursday. They conclude an opening two-game trip to start league play Saturday at Southern Utah, then return home for a double-dip against North Dakota and Northern Colorado.

Coach Bunky Harkleroad and his team have put up great numbers. They are eighth in the country in scoring at 84.7 points per game, which includes that season-low point total from the Northern Arizona loss, and lead everyone with an average of 13.3 3-pointers. They also are first in offensive rebounds and steals and third in turnover margin.

The big problem appears to be an inability to make shots. On Thursday, Sacramento State scored only two baskets in the final 10 minutes to lose an eight-point lead; the Hornets shot 28 percent (22-for-79) for the game, including 12-for-47 on 3s. Forcing 32 turnovers and getting up 23 more shots than the Lumberjacks wasn’t enough, unfortunately.

Sacramento State and Southern Utah are scheduled to tip off at 9 p.m. EST Saturday.

Knox – NCAA Division III Women

In her fourth year running The System, coach Emily Cline has the Prairie Fire off to their best start yet at 4-5 overall and 2-2 in the Midwest Conference. They were a combined 19-50 over the previous three seasons, including 15-39 in the MWC.

Knox has won two of its past three games heading into Saturday’s game at conference foe Ripon and is challenging for the top spot nationally among D-III schools in many statistical categories. The Prairie Fire average 94.2 points (third), 11.1 3-pointers (second), 18.8 steals (second) and 25 offensive rebounds (second), and they have a turnover margin of 11.6 (fourth).

That’s pretty good, right?

Cline is getting something from everyone, too. Only two players are in double figures – Jodi Marver (15.1 points per game) and Jessica Howard (10.3) – but 12 other players have gotten run in each of the nine games.

The tip for Saturday’s game at Ripon is scheduled for 2 p.m. EST.

Eisenhower HS – Blue Island, Ill., boys

I've spoken of my affection for the way this group plays, since coach Mike Curta has a buy-in from them that would be the envy of any team.

So far, the Cardinals are 9-3, their best start during Curta's seven-year tenure, and are putting up amazing numbers for a high school team. Remember, their games are only 32 minutes, not the 40 minutes of colleges.

Here is what Eisenhower has done so far:

  • Averaging 90.5 points on 87 shots per game
  • Forcing 30 turnovers per game
  • Averaging about 49 3-point attempts
  • Getting to the free throw line about 10 more per game than its opponent
The coach's son, point guard Vinny Curta, is averaging an area-high 23.9 points and is a big reason for the team's success. Quick side note: Vinny will join older brother Nick at Grinnell next season, continuing the family tradition with Coach A up in Iowa.

Here is a brief update from coach Curta, via the Yahoo! message board devoted to The System:
As stated in the previous posts, our success is the combination of our talent and The System. My son has developed into a really solid player and more importantly, he runs the team. I wish that I could take the credit for the success we have had, but it is really on him right now. He is our best player, one of the best in the area through the first six weeks of the season, and he has the complete respect of his teammates. He sets the tone in practices and games. We have shot the ball particularly well to this point, either from the field or the free throw line. However, our kids have the mentality to play through the entire 32-minute process. We don't get too high early when things are going well, and we don't get too low when things go poorly, either. It has been great to watch the kids develop the confidence to play this way for a full 32 minutes every game.
Well said, coach. Eisenhower takes the court again Tuesday, hosting Hinsdale South.

Reno Bighorns – NBA Developmental League

I often forget to include this team when talking about The System, since it's all so new to us. Coach Dave Arseneault Jr. has Reno at 7-7 through 14 games, good for third in the West Division. 

The season has had its ups and downs, mostly notably with the presumed departure and then reported return of Brady Heslip, who is tied for first in the league with teammate Quincy Miller at 27.1 points per game. Heslip has missed the previous two games while his contract situation cleared up; he was set to go to Turkey, where players sometimes can earn as much as 10 times their D-League salary. Last word was he was going to stay and look for a callup from an NBA team when 10-day contracts become available later this month.

So far, The System has been inconsistent. When the commitment and effort are there, it's a beautiful thing to see. The Bighorns average a league-best 139 points, with a season high of 156 in a victory over Erie on Dec. 14. 

Reno makes 18.6 3-pointers per game on an average of 49 attempts and forces about 24 turnovers in each one, so The System does work. Once the roster stabilizes (or should I say, "if"), coach Arseneault should have a better opportunity to show what it really can do.

The Bighorns travel to Los Angeles to take on the LA D-fenders on Saturday, with the game scheduled to start at 9:30 p.m. EST. Remember, all D-League games are available live on YouTube, with links available on the league's Website.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

My way of saying Happy New Year (or why I came to love The System)

I never really thought about it until recently, but December and I have quite the relationship with The System. In fact, all the important dates of my infatuation with this tantalizing style of basketball celebrate their anniversary during this month. It’s similar to Christmas, except without Santa Claus, or carols, or ugly sweaters, or a tree decorated with crafts and lights … well, at least we all receive gifts in the form of 3-pointers, steals and high-scoring games.

But I digress. With the month (and the year) winding down, I figured I’d share my stories.

My first view of The System came in December 1988, when Oklahoma traveled to little-known (at least to me at the time) Loyola Marymount, where a national cable TV audience watched the Sooners roll to a 136-103 victory. That was Dec. 17, 1988, to be exact, and watching that game fascinated me as no other one ever had.

Was it the full-court press? Yes. Was it the amount of points scored? Yes. Was it the freedom with which both teams played? YES! The Loyola Marymount Lions, with coach Paul Westhead and stars Bo Kimble and Hank Gathers, became my favorite team, and I watched whenever I could.

I still remember several of their televised games – a loss in overtime to Shaquille O’Neal and LSU, a rout of LaSalle when Westhead, Kimble and Gathers celebrated a return to their Philadelphia roots – and recorded many of them. And as so many did, I fought off tears when Gathers collapsed and died on the court during the 1990 West Coast Conference tournament, then celerated when LMU reached the Elite Eight of that year’s NCAA tournament.

The second-round victory against reigning champ Michigan still is one of my favorite games, and I have a DVD of it that I watch frequently.

Then when Westhead left for the Denver Nuggets, Kimble graduated and everything sort of fell apart, I still followed the Lions with new coach Jay Hillock. He was fired after two seasons, and with his departure, I accepted that The System was gone forever.

Fast forward to 2002, when I was working with The Associated Press in Atlanta. I was perusing the sports wire one day when I came across a story about a tiny NCAA Division III school in Iowa which put up numbers similar to Westhead’s team at LMU. Only this team did it a different way, with five-for-five substitutions every minute and a reliance, an emphasis, on 3-pointers.

On Dec. 11, 2002, Grinnell College played a Division I school for the final time, losing to Drake 162-110, and with the Internet as my companion, I had a new favorite team.

I left the AP in 2006 but that did nothing to quell my enjoyment of watching coach David Arseneault and his Pioneers. In 2008, I reached out to Coach A for the first time and wrote a piece for my local newspaper on this frenetic and amazing way of playing the sport I loved. So what if no one in Rockingham, N.C., really cared? My mission was to share the news of The System with anyone who would listen.

This blog came about early in 2009 and became another outlet for updates on Grinnell. With my 40th birthday coming up later that summer, I got the OK from my wife to make the pilgrimage to Iowa – in December, of course – to see The System in person. The trip to Iowa was amazing, even if I did happen to pick one of only two losing seasons in the past 10 to visit. Grinnell lost both games during my stay, but it hardly mattered.

Coach A spent nearly two hours with me and a travel companion, a buddy from home whom my daughter, Libbie, dubbed “Iowa Tim.” And I got to spend time with Dave Arseneault Jr., as well; at the time, he was less than a year removed from his career as a point guard on his father’s team and seemed unsure of what his future held. Now, of course, Dave is the head coach of the Reno Bighorns in the NBA Development League, the affiliate of the Sacramento Kings, where he is implementing Coach A’s version of The System.

I chronicled my adventure for “Basketball Times” magazine, and during my research for the article, I got to know many other coaches around the country who believed in The System. They followed Coach A’s philosophy and I discovered it was spread amongst colleges, high schools and even middle schools.

One question I often get is how is what LMU did different than what Grinnell and others are doing now? There are a couple of major differences in the philosophy, and neither has anything to do with Xs and Os.

Westhead used his best players for the vast majority of the game. Kimble, Gathers, guard Jeff Fryer and forward Per Stumer (who had great hair!) each averaged more than 30 minutes of run. As you likely know, the Grinnell System is predicated on five-for-five substitutions every 45-to-60 seconds. This enables Coach A and his disciples to continue an all-out assault for a turnover even in the halfcourt.

Westhead’s teams pressed hard in the backcourt but retreated into a sagging man-to-man defense once the ball crossed the time line. At Grinnell this season, no one plays more than 21.1 minutes each game, and 12 players get at least 10. So you can run and press, but to be considered a “Grinnell” team, you have to distribute the playing time across your roster.

The quest for 3-pointers is another area of contrast. In 1989-90, when LMU reached the final eight in the NCAA tournament, Westhead’s squad shot 23 3-pointers per game. Grinnell is AVERAGING 58.4 attempts so far through 10 games this season. Remember, one of The Formula stats for The System is to shoot at least half your shots from beyond the arc.

None of this is to say one approach is better than the other, or that The System is the only way to play the game. I joke about it being the best, but most people understand any style can be successful if you have a committed coaching staff and roster.

For example: I can’t stand watching the Virginia Cavaliers play, with coach Tony Bennett instructing his squad to slow the pace. Through 11 games, they allow their opponents to score about 46 points a game on about 60 possessions in each one (Grinnell averages about 100). They play so methodically it ruins what I love about basketball. Yet Bennett has his team undefeated and ranked in the top five, so it’s certainly hard to argue with the results.

I will admit I become a little defensive when people question whether the Grinnell System has been or could be as successful as other methodologies.

Ed Isaacson, who writes an NBA draft blog for a Website called, was an early naysayer of Reno’s style of play, wondering via Twitter why any team would use it since Grinnell never has won a national championship. His reasoning appeared to be that this was the only validation for success.

Has the Princeton offense ever won a national championship? Has the Triangle offense that Phil Jackson forced upon the New York Knicks this season ever won anything without Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Kobe Bryant or Shaq as one of the players? What a horrible criticism.

And for the record: in the 25 years before Coach A took over at Grinnell, the Pioneers were 106-437 (.195), including a record of 0-22 in 1979-80. His record in the 25 seasons since is 329-247, a relatively gaudy winning percentage of .571 and an incredible turnaround in the history of the program.

Regardless of what Isaacson or anyone else thinks, I always will support The System and the teams and coaches who make it look so fun. I would encourage anyone who still has an open mind to watch Grinnell play, or the women’s teams at Sacramento State, NCAA Division III North Central College or NAIA Division II Olivet Nazarene. Each of those teams plays the vast majority of its games live on the Internet, and Grinnell and Olivet Nazarene have an on-demand feature for previous ones.

While you watch, don’t worry about the score, or who won or lost. Watch the effort of the players on the court. Watch the bench, where their teammates are passionately cheering for them. Watch the coaches, particularly Coach A, who often passively watch their teams play without constant instruction. And watch and listen for the fans, who cheer each steal, 3-pointer and other great plays with great zeal.

The System isn’t the only way to play. It just is my favorite.