Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Dave Arnold makes another case for "The System"

This is the coach of the Whitmore Lake Trojans, a high school varsity boys' team not too far from the metropolis of Detroit. Coach Arnold's squad set the Michigan high school record with 29 3-pointers last week during a 117-80 victory over Morenci, an effort you read about here in this very space. The Trojans were 29-for-78 from behind the arc -- simply amazing totals -- despite missing 13 of their 15 attempts on 3s in the first quarter. At that point, it was on like Donkey Kong as Whitmore Lake put 37 points on the board in the next quarter on its way to the blowout.

According to Coach Arnold, he pulled most of his first line players during a timeout with about 4 minutes to go with the score 96-68, and the unit he sent on the floor immediately hit a trifecta, the 22nd of the game. The pressing defense that is such an integral part of "The System" was squelched in favor of a 2-3 zone, which actually made things a little tougher for Morenci. "When we go with what you would consider our second unit, we're huge," Coach Arnold said. "They couldn't get a shot off. You want to tell the other team, 'Our press is like your best friend, because you're going to get shots.'"

Earlier in his career, Coach Arnold was anything but "run-and-gun," preferring a more traditional style while instructing his players to patiently look for the perfect shot. He talked of winning games 25-23 and 23-21 before finally deciding he had taken most of the fun out of the game for his team, and for himself. "One of the things I realized while doing that is you might win the game, but you're really losing the war in a lot of ways," Coach Arnold said. "It was tough to watch. We never subbed in the second half, and only subbed sparingly in the first, so we literally were playing five players. And say what you will, but even your best kids on the bench, the consummate team players, they're still pissed off the next day at practice."

So he made the decision to play faster, much, much faster. He had a relationship with Bob Belf, who any reader of this blog should know is the women's coach at Henry Ford Community College near Detroit, and went to Coach Belf for help to convert his team to "The System." The first game they ran it, the Trojans won 72-70, and as Coach Arnold said, there were times when his team didn't score 72 points combined in back-to-back games. The real test came in Game 2, when Whitmore Lake fell behind by 35 in the first half, rallied to tie it, then lost it 90-89 after a questionable call led to a free throw at the buzzer.

The rest, as they say, is history. Here's some other highlights of my conversation with Coach Arnold, a passionate man who appears to have Whitmore Lake on the right track:

(Tell me about your decision to go to "The System")

Coach Arnold: "I tell you what was the key to all this. I sat down with our principal, and he and I are great friends. He asked, 'Can we fix this?' I told him I saw two options: we could really go slow and hold the ball, or we could try this. I explained it to him, and he had a look like this was going to be crazy. But he trusted me enough to know that either it was going to work, or I would find something else."

(What are some the benefits of "The System" that you've seen?)

Coach Arnold: "I can't describe how much better the atmosphere is. The players want to come to play every day, nobody's missing practice, it's really been a blessing to do it. It's been a little difficult, too, I'll admit, being that old-school, disciplined defensive guy as we are just giving up layup after layup. I think sometimes, my head is going to explode. But I don't know if I could go back to coaching the other way."

(How is your routine different?)

Coach Arnold: "It's really opened my eyes to a lot of things, and I'm sure I'm not the first to figure this out, about the relative value of coaching. Not to say it's overrated, but I've never practiced less. I've never run less, or schematically simpler, stuff. Basically, it's like that episode of 'Seinfeld,' where George Costanza has been beaten down and he decides he's going to do the opposite in everything he does. That's what we try to do."

(What was it like to score 37 points in one 8-minute quarter?)

Coach Arnold: "That is the one thing about this, a lot of it plays into your energy and emotion, and when you score, you're going to score in bunches. You can go a couple of minutes without getting a bucket, but when you hit one, then one becomes two, two becomes four, four becomes eight, and the next thing you know, you're really on a roll. It's taken some time, you'd be surprised, to coach them that I would rather take a long shot, or a questionable shot, then have them throw another pass."

(What's been the reaction from fans and others?)

Coach Arnold: "I had a few of my friends that are coaches come and watch a game, which we lost, and we met up for dinner afterwards. They had been hanging around the lobby after the game and told me some of the stuff they heard. They told me, 'I don't think anybody knows you actually lost the game.' Everybody was so upbeat and positive. Now, certainly, you don't want the wins and the competitiveness to take a back seat, but we're giving a lot of kids the opportunity and letting everybody play."

Congratulations again to Coach Arnold and Whitmore Lake, and I certainly wish them luck the rest of the season. Maybe the Trojans can break that new state record!

Elsewhere, Grinnell suffered a tough loss Wednesday night at Midwest Conference rival Monmouth College, with the Fighting Scots holding on to win 82-80. The Pioneers (4-11, 3-6 MWC) had a chance to win in the final seconds, but Matt Skelly's 3-pointer came up short, and Monmouth (4-12, 3-6) ran out the clock.

It was a tough night for Skelly, who was named player of the week in the conference after averaging 25 points in Grinnell's two victories over the weekend. He finished 4-for-22 in this one, including 3-for-18 on 3s, and scored 12 points. Freshman Dylan Seelman had a good night, connecting on six treys for a total 18 points, with Xander Strek (14 points) and Matt Chalupa (10) also reaching double figures. The Pioneers sprinted to an eight-point lead in the second half but couldn't hold on down the stretch. A 3 from Seelman tied it at 80 with 2:14 left before Zach Ott put Monmouth ahead with two free throws a few seconds later. Skelly missed three shots from behind the line following that lead change, including that one with 6 seconds left, and Seelman missed one, as well, so the Pioneers definitely had their chances.

Grinnell stays on the road Saturday, traveling to Lake Forest for another MWC contest, before traveling back home to take on Fontbonne University at Darby Gym on Sunday. Keep rooting for coach David Arsenault and the Pioneers.

The women's team at Olivet Nazarene with coach Doug Porter had some troubles to deal with this week, as well, giving up an 11-point halftime lead and eventually losing 94-88 to Cardinal Stritch University on Tuesday. Coach Porter and the Tigers fell to 9-14, while the Wolves won their ninth straight to improve to 20-2.

ONU still led by 10 midway through the second half before Cardinal Stritch rallied behind Liz Neitzel. The sophomore from Lomira, Wisc., scored 11 of her 26 points in the final 6 minutes, including a go-ahead three-point play with 3:27 left to make it 86-84. The Tigers quickly tied in on two free throws from McCall Kitchel but never led again, with Neitzel giving the Wolves the lead for good with a layup.

As high-scoring as this game was, imagine what would have happened if either team had held on to the ball a little better. Cardinal Stritch turned it over 32 times, with ONU giving it up 30. Coach Porter and his team are off until a road game at Indiana University-South Bend next Tuesday. I'll keep you posted.

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