I've watched at least parts of all seven Midwest Conference games for Grinnell this season and find myself in the unique position of knowing more about this team than anyone I know. Pretty heady stuff. Here are some general generalizations I've come up with based on my experiences:
- Firstly, even though this is Division III and no one is on scholarship, the Pioneers are more athletically challenged than their opponents. No, that's not code for "they have too many white guys;" pretty much every team I've seen them play has predominantly white players. Grinnell essentially has kids who believe in what they're doing and go to great lengths to give maximum effort. Certainly, the trifecta of stars (the aforementioned younger Arsenault, leading scorer John Grotberg and Bobby Long) are dazzling and would be equally as successful in any system. Many of the other players? Not so much.
- The teams most familiar with "The System," i.e. the conference foes, appear to have a pretty good handle on, well, handling the pressure. Whether it be good spacing on offense (forcing the Pioneers to look far and wide for traps) or tight man-to-man defense (not allowing any open shooters), the MWC teams face little surprises. It is a testament to coach Arsenault and his players that they still manage to thrive despite this handicap.
- Even the best plans go astray with the fatigue that Grinnell forces on the other team. Sure, the Pioneers are accustomed to running full tilt for 40 minutes each night and take the necessary precautions through their liberal substitutions. The opponent isn't as fortunate, and those crisp passes to break the press in the first half become a bit lazy down the stretch, leading to turnovers and missed layups. It's amazing to see.
- Of course, Grinnell has its share of missed layups, too, and not just from players not named Arsenault, Grotberg or Long. It can't be from being tired (at least not all the time), and it probably is too trite to blame it on guys being more comfortable behind the 3-point line. For some reason, the Pioneers give up a lot of points on the offensive end by failing to convert from in close.
- And, often, they simply turn down those shots to pass it back out for a 3. That is all well and good, yet they spend too much time looking for their top scorers. Shooters who can make shots often defer to one of the leaders, which is great to see in some respects. But it helps cost the team opportunities, and the lesser-known members of the Pioneers would be better served taking those shots themselves.
- I'll admit, while watching the Pioneers struggle on the scoreboard over the weekend (more on that later), I thought of ways to improve "The System." What if they didn't give up so many uncontested layups? What if they drove to the basket more often and kept the long-range jumpers to a minimum? What if they didn't swipe so much at the ball and allow their opponents to spend an eternity on the free throw line? What if ....? Eventually, I realized I was falling into the trap of second-guessing a tried-and-true strategy. No, it doesn't lead to victories all the time, but more often than not, coach Arsenault comes out on top. Pretty difficult to argue with a man who has been perfecting his creation for 20 years.
As I said, the weekend wasn't kind to Grinnell, which lost two in a row to fall out of a tie for first in the MWC. Both losses were at home, so that makes it doubly difficult to take. Carroll College held on for a 108-102 victory on Friday, and St. Norbert College (ranked 17th in the latest poll from D3hoops.com) pulled away late to win 107-96 on Saturday.
The Pioneers (8-5, 5-2 MWC) have nearly a week off before traveling to Lawrence on Friday. The Vikings (9-4, 5-1) are third in the conference, trailing Carroll and St. Norbert, with Grinnell fourth.