Sunday, August 28, 2011

Speaking of System against System ...

Remember a recent post about two high school girls' teams running the System who just happened to play each other in a summer camp? Really, you don't remember? Just scroll down a bit, then, it's just a couple of updates below this one. There, now your memory is refreshed.

This does happen extremely infrequently. To my knowledge, the original System team, the Division III men's squad at Grinnell, never has faced another team using this style in the 20 years since coach David Arseneault first created it. That, perhaps more than any other statistic, describes just how unconventional The System is.

Well, back a few years ago, a pair of coaches who believe in this way to play set up a pair of games for their teams. Doug Porter, the women's coach at NAIA Olivet Nazarene, and Bunky Harkleroad, now the women's coach at NCAA Division II Glenville State, had become friends once both decided to "take the plunge," in System vernacular, so they decided to play each other.

This was when Coach Harkleroad was at NAIA Berea College in Kentucky, which played in Division II (ONU was in Division I). Also, Coach Porter's program offered scholarships to its players while Berea didn't, so the two programs weren't quite on the same level at the time.

Both games were won by Olivet Nazarene, including a 112-72 victory in the first one, but the second one was much closer. Berea fell behind by 10 at halftime and rallied to make it a game before losing 106-101.

Given both teams were interested in getting up and down, the scores seem a little low, but I'll let both coaches address that. Each was kind enough to send a note with his memories of those games. First up is Coach Porter.

Doug Porter: "We scheduled the game because we thought it would be interesting to have two System teams face off. I’d known Bunky for awhile already, and he was a big help in getting started with the System because his team at Berea did it before we did. He also came and spoke at our 2005 System clinic here at ONU.

"The game was somewhat anticlimactic in the sense that it wasn’t quite as high scoring as I’d expected. ONU won 112-72, but were actually down at halftime by 8-10 points, as I recall. Bunky told me later they’d had some dissention in the locker room at halftime which explained their subpar performance in the second half.

"From a statistical standpoint, it was interesting to see that we shot fewer 3s than normal (34) while taking 89 shots overall. This was because we pressed each other, resulting in more open layups for both teams. We could have elected to take the three after breaking Berea’s press, but we apparently got lots of good layup chances (just as they did against us!). The big difference seemed to be the turnover differential. We forced 45 TOs, while committing “only” 24 ourselves. Not sure how to explain that ... I guess Berea — as a System team — was not used to being pressed, but I would have expected us to turn it over more as well.

"We also played at Berea in 2007-08, winning a close game 106-101. That game we turned it over 40 times vs. Berea’s press, while forcing them into 46 turnovers. The score is surprising, again, because you’d expect that with a tempo that fast we’d both create more points. But I see they were only 12-43 from the arc, while we weren’t much better at 13-43. The excessive turnovers, however, seem to be the key reason why neither team scored consistently that game. I guess 106-101 seems like a high scoring game to some, but in the case of two System teams going head to head, I think the score would have been much higher if we’d both just agreed to run and shoot, without pressing. After all, much of the reason for using a press in the System is to force tempo, and there’s certainly no need to do that vs. another System team!"

Great stuff there from Coach Porter. Now, here are Coach Harkleroad's thoughts.

Bunky Harkleroad: "We actually played twice, once at ONU. Close game at half and then we couldn’t buy a bucket and got beat by about 50. The next (time) we played at Berea. I had a friend dying of cancer and I actually wasn’t at the game but ONU prevailed in a close battle. Both games were kinda odd if you ask me. We seemed to offset each other and it wasn’t as exciting as a System team playing a team that 'took the bait' and tried to run with. We both ended up straying in a few subtle areas to offset the other team.

"At Berea we had zero scholarships and were NAIA D2 whereas ONU takes athletics seriously and I think they had 10 scholarships. Regardless, they were clearly the better team and Coach Porter did (and still does) an amazing job. In my humble opinion, it’s hard when two System teams go at it because the bottom line is both teams want to win and will do whatever it takes, even if that means making adjustments that get you away from true System ball."

Again, really good information from Coach Harkleroad. I appreciate their time very much, and I hope everyone out there reading did, as well. I anxiously anticipate the upcoming season, where ONU and Glenville State again should challenge for conference championships and a trip to their respective national tournaments.

Good luck to both teams!

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Coach A takes a sabbatical at Grinnell, turns over the program to his son

This should be a very interesting season for the NCAA Division III men's team at Grinnell, the original System team. Coach David Arseneault, the man who came up with this dynamic style of play, plans to take a sabbatical to complete a book on how his creation has affected basketball. It should be a wonderful read, and if possible, I already would have placed my pre-order for this gem. He is traveling the country to visit with coaches who have used The System to great success, and he plans to tell their stories in the pages of his latest book. Good stuff, right?

Well, ordinarily you might feel as if that would leave a hole at the top for the Pioneers. Have no fear -- the program will be in great hands. Coach A's son, David N. Arseneault, has been named the interim replacement. It should be an exciting time for both of them as they work side-by-side to keep Grinnell near the top of the Midwest Conference.

The younger Arseneault starred as a point guard for his father, averaging a D-III-record 9.4 assists during his four-year career. He was a three-time finalist Bob Cousy Award for the top point guard in each NCAA division and set the all-division, single-game record with 34 assists against North Central University in a 151-112 victory Dec. 8, 2007. During his time as a player, the Pioneers compiled a record of 65-31 while winning two MWC championships. He has served as Coach A's assistant since graduating.

Even though the "official" point of transition will be the semester break over Christmas, the younger Arseneault will have total control for the entire season, according to his father. Each of them took time from his busy schedule to answer a few questions I had regarding the announcement, which has been in the works for a couple of months now. I'll start with the original Coach A, and then move to Coach A 2.0, for lack of a better term. And, no, before you ask, they are not "Sr." and "Jr." They each have a different middle initial.

Here we go.

(What do you think it will be like watching your son run the program?)

Coach A: "David had so much freedom to coach these past couple of years, that any transition kinks have already been smoothed out."

(How involved will you be?)

Coach A: "I am going to be his assistant for the entire year. My role will not change over the course of the season. To satisfy some people in our administration the results of first semester will go on my career record and David will be credited with the second semester results. But he will be making the decisions throughout."

(How would you describe the differences and similarities in your coaching styles?)

Coach A: "We've been finishing each others thoughts and sentences for a number of years. I don't expect too much to change."

(Finally, how is the new book coming?)

Coach A: "I have completed two of the fourteen chapters and will be starting Chapter 3 next week. I am thoroughly enjoying this process!"

A huge thanks to Coach A for his time. As I said, it will be interesting to see how this season plays out. Now, on to the "new" coach.

(First things first: are you still going to run The System? And please say yes ...)

Dave Arseneault: "It’s safe to say that ‘The System’ will be out in full force for the 2011-12 campaign. Besides, I don’t think the guys on the team would listen to me if I taught them the principles of tough, half-court man-to-man defense or the intricacies of the ‘Wisconsin Swing Offense.'"

(How did this all come about?)

Dave Arseneault: "It was actually my dad’s idea. He came to me during the middle of last year and told me that he was thinking of taking his sabbatical for the 2011-12 season. He asked me if I was ready and willing to take over in his absence. I was extremely excited at the possibility of taking over the program while he was on leave. From there, I applied for the position and was eventually hired."

(You've been such an integral part of that program for several years. Any downside to that familiarity?)

Dave Arseneault: "The only downside I can really think of is that I haven’t had the opportunity to learn from a variety of other coaches. But it’s hard to complain too much given that I’ve been working with somebody that I consider as one of the best and most innovative coaches in the country!"

(You and I have discussed your desire to learn a variety of styles of play from a variety of coaches. Do you still feel that way?)

Dave Arseneault: "I still feel that learning from as many different coaches and learning about as many different playing styles would help me develop as a coach. At the same time, an incredible opportunity presented itself and I’d be crazy to not take advantage of gaining valuable head coaching experience."

(How about the differences in your coaching styles? Your dad is somewhat noted for his habit of pulling up a chair at the far end of the bench, in the corner, and watching the action.)

Dave Arseneault: "Dad and I have a very similar thought process and very similar coaching styles. My mother thinks it’s a little scary because we’ll finish each other’s sentences at the dinner table. There are times during practice where we’ll both say the exact same thing to a player without even knowing it until after the fact. Even still, I’ve heard from some of the past players that the big fella has grown a bit mild-tempered as he’s gotten older. He’ll remain in his chair down the end of the bench, but his advice will certainly be called on regularly."

(What has been the reaction on campus and around the program?)

Dave Arseneault: "From what I know, the campus has been very receptive of the change. Everybody that I have talked to has been very supportive, including past teammates and current players."

(Now that you're in charge, can I finally get you to schedule a game in North Carolina?)

Dave Arseneault: "I’d love to get out to North Carolina for a game as long as you’re taking care of our travel accommodations ..."

That's a deal: I just have to find an opponent willing to play Grinnell, come up with a sponsor to pay for the team's travel, and we're in!

As I said, I'm always appreciative of these guys' time, as I am with all the coaches who take time to visit with me. We are getting closer and closer to hoops season, when The System will be in full effect. I have more teams than ever to follow, and I simply can't wait.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

A rarity: Two System teams play each other at Villanova University camp

OK, for those of you keeping score, you remember how often I have discussed the uniqueness of The System, right? How disappointing it is that more teams don't use it? Right? Remember?

Well, Scott Horton thought the same thing when he decided it was time for his girls' team at Manalapan HS in Englishtown, N.J., to take the plunge with this incredible, exhilarating style of basketball. He prepared his team for camp at Villanova University, where it would debut with The System and almost assuredly be the only team there running it.

Amazingly enough, it didn't work out that way, and Coach Horton needed only the opening game to realize it.

Longtime blog subject coach Keith Freund had his team from North Shore HS, in Glen Head, N.Y., at the camp, too, and as fate would have it, Manalapan was matched up with North Shore in that first game. Coach Freund hadn't experienced going against The System, either, so both coaches got a look at it from the other side of the court, so to speak.

North Shore ended up winning 36-34 (summer games are shortened somewhat with a running clock), and both coaches came away with a new appreciation with The System. They spent some time together discussing it over the remainder of the weekend, and Coach Horton found his way to the Yahoo! message board that serves as a wonderful support group for all coaches (and wannabe coaches who have a blog devoted to The System).

I tracked down Coach Horton through the board, and he graciously agreed to an interview. Hopefully you will enjoy his thoughts as much as I did.

(First of all, what was it like playing against The System in your very first game?)

Coach Horton: "To me, it was just one more sign that we have to run The System. I had told the players how no one plays this way, and the first time we do it, we are playing another System team. Unbelievable.

"The game is about to start, and Keith (the North Shore coach) says to me, 'We press the whole time, and I sub a lot.' I say, 'OK.' Then the game starts, and about 50 seconds in I say 'SUB!' and so does Keith. A minute later the same thing happens. We are standing right next to each other at mid-court. After the second line shift, Keith looks at me and says, 'Grinnell, or ONU?' I say, 'I'm not sure, this is our first time running it, but we are trying to be more like ONU.' I said, 'You?' Keith said, I'm an ONU guy.'

"Suddenly, I felt like this great way to play ball was out there, and I was late to the party. Anyway, the game was amazing. It was complete chaos. And the interesting thing to me is this: For both North Shore and Manalapan, it was the lowest scoring game each of us played the whole weekend. ... There were players all over the floor at anytime, and the ball was just flying up and down. I felt a little bad for the officials. They had no idea what they were in for.

"So after the game, Keith and I spoke, and then I spent a lot of time that weekend listening to Keith and asking him questions. He was great."

(Why'd you decide to make the switch to The System?)

Coach Horton: "I've been coaching since 1994. I regularly attend clinics, go to local college practices, AAU practices, and some boys H.S. practices. Once I heard Coach Arsenault speak about The System, I could not get it out of my head. Whenever I examined something new, I always came back to 'The System.'

"Then, last spring I attended a clinic in Syracuse, N.Y. While there, I purchased 'The Century Scoring System' by Doug Porter. I get home from three days of basketball coaching lectures and I watch Porter's DVD. He starts by referencing Coach Arsenault and Coach (Paul) Westhead, and I watch the whole DVD and realize that I can't get away from this.

"However, I had a brand new team. I graduated six seniors 2009-2010. For the 2010-2011 season, I had two transfer students and a whole new freshmen class coming in. I had only one returning player. Because I did not know the players, and quite honestly, I did not feel prepared, I was not ready.

"As we played last season I quickly saw that we had talent and depth. At one point we were 10-3. I was miserable. We were winning, but it was not fun. I did not enjoy watching the team play. There were the typical inner struggles with playing time, shot distribution, and overall boredom with 'running plays' and defensive drill work. It was at that point that I told the assistants that 2011-2012 would be different. We were moving to The System.

"I have an athletic team. I have some depth. And I have been coaching girls basketball for 17 years, and I can't coach quarter-court basketball anymore. It simply is not rewarding for the players or myself. So we started before the season ended by playing much faster. Then after the season, we had a meeting where we ate pizza and I explained the system and why we were doing it. I showed some video and answered questions. We did the same thing in June right before the summer. Then we went to Villanova team camp and ran the system, and it was amazing. The kids love it, and so do I.

(Any other thoughts on the camp at Villanova?)

Coach Horton: "This may sound strange, but I have to say that the Villanova team camp was the highlight of my 17 year coaching career. And I mean that. I'll start specifically, and then talk in broader terms.

"On Sunday morning we beat Gloucester Catholic by 14 points. In 2010-2011 Gloucester Catholic won the South Jersey Parochial State Championship. They did graduate really good players, but they are great program, and incredibly well coached. If we played traditional basketball, their top 5-7 players are better than ours, and she is a better coach than me. But with the system, our depth becomes better than their talent. In addition, her coaching is minimized because we are not playing that style.

"Also, we had a couple of those 8-0 and 9-0 runs that are just killer to the opponent. Against Gloucester, there was one stretch where we made a 3, then we made a steal in the press, and my guard dribbled backward to the three point line and banked in a three, and that just took the wind right out of our opponent. It was a backbreaker.

"Another highlight was watching one of my guards who on her own, developed a step back 3-point shot move. She is a good athlete, but it is something she kind of fell into by playing this way, and by Sunday, it was a pretty good move.

"Now bigger picture are a couple of important points. We lost Friday night. On Saturday we won one game and lost two. So at that point, we were 1-3. Amazingly, we were 1-3, and my team loved what we were doing. Then on Sunday, we won all three games. To me, based on what I've read, it was almost like a season. Every other team at camp deteriorated as the weekend progressed. We got better with every game and every (very light) practice. We beat Gloucester on Sunday. I don't think we would have beaten them on Friday or Saturday. They were fresher and sharper then. Also, our players were absolutely better on Sunday then they were Friday.

"Another very important point. My players were all saying the right things. They said things like, 'I can't wait for November.' 'Coach, why didn't we do this before now?' 'Coach, I tried to watch two other teams play, but I can't. It's too boring.' 'Coach, please don't ever let us play how we used to.' 'I was watching another team set up their offense and run to set a screen, and pass the ball, and jog back, and I wanted to say to them there's a better way to play.

"My point is that these players love basketball now. And setting them free and watching them play without fear is a thing of beauty. There are so many players making plays they never would have in traditional basketball. I now feel like conventional basketball is like shackles on a player's talent. It sets a ceiling for how good they can be. With The System, I have no idea how great these athletes might be."

(What are some of the best things about The System?)

Coach Horton: "I don't know where to begin with this one.
- Players love basketball
- Players get better every day
- Players have fun
- Players are truly part of the team
- Players do things you never thought were possible
- Players smile
- It is fun to watch
- No one can deny the educational value of maximized participation
- Basketball is supposed to be fun
- The score is irrelevant, yet it still helps you win
- Happy coach equals good coach"

(What do you hope to achieve from going to The System?)

Coach Horton: "I want my players to improve and love basketball. I want them to learn that aggression is a good thing. I want them to learn to trust their ability and talent and attack at all times. And if you fail, fail going forward 100 miles an hour. No one can ever regret that type of mentality."

Simply incredible reaction there from Coach Horton. I can't wait to see how his team competes when the season begins. As one of his players told him, I can't wait for November. The best of luck to him and the Braves.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Keith Freund: 'I am System for life!'

I am finally ready to admit that I have an addiction. No, not that. Or that. It is The System, of course, that wonderful, amazing, way of playing basketball that has engulfed me. At this point, I can't get enough of it.

Believing in something so much can present a problem, such as fellow basketball-crazed fans who don't share my belief in The System (you know who you are, Johnny Rain Cloud.) Or other coaches and players who feel as if it is a gimmick, a fad, or some other type of passing phenomenon. Sure, try telling that to David Arseneault, who came up with this style nearly 20 years ago and still wins regularly with it.

All this is why I was surprised, and, yes, somewhat disappointed to hear last season that one of our own, a coach making terrific use of The System, would no longer use it when his current crop of players used up their eligibility. Keith Freund, the girls' coach at North Shore HS in Glen Head, N.Y., got as much out of it as anyone this past season, leading the Vikings to a 16-3 record (including 12-0 in their conference) and a trip to quarterfinals of the state tournament.

Coach Freund has a solid rotation of girls now, yet felt when he no longer had the talent to go at least 10-deep, he would have to adjust his plan. You know, the old adage that you coach to your team's skill level.

Well, shortly after the regular season ended, he posted the following on the Yahoo! message board devoted to The System regarding his ideas about the present and the future. It was one of the best things I've read regarding The System, and with his approval, I wanted to share it with you.

And, yes, I know if you're not sold on my favorite way to play the game, this likely won't change your mind. That used to bother me somewhat. I felt a bit like the art lover who sees a certain beauty and longevity in a single work of art, only to discover there are those who mock the painting, the artist and anyone who feels differently.

I'm good with it all now. There are enough of "us" out there to feed my passion, my obsession, and, yes, my addiction. I'm happy to say that group now includes Coach Freund, as you'll see from his message here from shortly after the season ended:

Coach Freund: "I've often said on this website that if I did not have the kids to run The System, I would stop. Two years from now, we are going to be seven deep and I've said over and over, we will not be a System team then.

"Outside forces are railing against that thought, however. I met with my AD yesterday and when discussing it, he said I was crazy. He said he is a believer and it is the best way to play and I would be crazy to change, just develop 3 more kids he said (pretty good point considering I have 2 years for that). I went home and told my wife and she said, 'I told you so,' and if I ever stop playing this way, she is going to stop going to the games.

"Then, last night at the Senior Game practice, the kids asked to run our offense and after explaining it, you should have seen their faces. The smiles, the 'for real?' looks. It was like unleashing a puppy and watching them play. They were so excited. Some of the college coaches watching starting taking out their notebooks and copying it down and afterwards asked if they could call me.

"The other coach with me was saying that he is going System next year and that I am revolutionizing basketball on Long Island and he believes from speaking with other coaches, that about 10-15 are going to go System in the next few years and that I cannot change. He watched us twice this year and said how much he loved it and loved watching our bench.

"After three encounters with people whom I really respect, I guess I am System For Life and instead of worrying about which kids cannot run it, I will worry about developing kids who can."
Incredible stuff there from Coach Freund. I am so happy he feels this way and will embrace The System. Certainly, it isn't the only way to play the game, and I never would say that. It simply is the most fun way I have ever seen.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

It's about time: another team from Grinnell's conference takes on The System

Over the past eight or nine years I have dedicated to Grinnell, coach David Arseneault and The System, one thought more than any other has been stuck in my brain -- why wouldn't another team in the conference try to play this way? No basketball program was as downtrodden as NCAA Division III Grinnell before Coach Arseneault decided to start this one-of-a-kind style in July 1991.

How downtrodden? Well, in the 22 seasons before the man affectionately known as Coach A took over in 1989, the Pioneers had an overall record of 94-383, or a winning percentage of .197. That included one completely winless season (0-22 in 1979-80), two one victory seasons and four seasons with only two victories. The closest Grinnell came to reaching .500? That was 1984-85, with the Pioneers finished 9-13.

Amazingly, the results in the Midwest Conference were even worse over that span. In those 22 seasons, Grinnell was 62-254 for a winning percentage of .196, and it had won a total of one conference game in the two years before Coach A came to town. There were three winless seasons, two with only one victory and six with two. No wonder he came up with something as revolutionary as The System.

Evan Massey, the girls' coach at Galesburg (Ill.) HS, graduated from Knox College, a conference rival of Grinnell's, and shared some memories on his blog of how poorly the Pioneers competed during that period.

Coach Massey: "People don't know how bad Grinnell was before Arseneault instituted 'The System.' In the 1970's, it was great to play Grinnell - it was a sure win. My last game at Grinnell there were about 20 non-players in attendance at the game at Grinnell. Most of them were from a fraternity with a dog sitting on the sideline and a wagon with a beer in the back. I never dreamed Grinnell could win. Grinnell would have 10-12 players for their home games, and 7-9 for their road games - some players did not want to make the trips. Coach Arseneault totally transformed that program."

Yes, he did. In the 22 years since Coach A took over, including two playing traditionally, the Pioneers are 275-222 (.553 winning percentage). This includes a record of 182-152 (.545) in the MWC along with five conference championships. Pretty amazing, right? I don't think even I, perhaps the top fan of The System and Grinnell outside of the state of Iowa, have given Coach A enough credit for what he had done. It truly boggles the mind.

So, anyway, back to my original point, how could any coach watch this over time and not appreciate Coach A and his invention? Or, better put, not appreciate it enough to want to give it a go with his/her own program?

Well, finally, someone from the conference has seen the wisdom behind The System. Emily Cline, the women's coach at Knox College, plans to take the plunge this season, becoming the first coach to hope to emulate the success Grinnell has had in the past 20 seasons. We have someone else to thank besides just Coach A for this wonderful fact; since Knox is in Galesburg, Ill., Coach Cline has seen firsthand how successful another team can be with The System by following coach Evan Massey and the Galesburg girls' team.

Coach Cline was hired at Knox in May 2008, and the Prairie Fire (love that mascot!) were 6-17 last season, including 5-13 in the MWC. I caught up with her via e-mail last week, and here are the results of our exchange:

(First off, are the rumors true? Are you going to The System next season?)

Coach Cline: "Yes, the rumors are true. We are going to The System. I am very excited about going to The System. I know it is going to be a challenge but I think it will be a great experience for our team."

(OK, tell us why.)

Coach Cline: "There are several reasons we are going to The System. Some of the main reasons are I love the thinking behind The System, I really enjoy watching teams play The System, and I have been intrigued by The System for many years.

"I first started hearing about the System when I was an assistant at Sewanee: The University of the South. My second year there the men's assistant was a former Grinnell men's player and he would talk about The System and show me clips/highlights. I was impressed by his enthusiasm about The System and I loved watching The System clips.

"However, if you would have asked me then if I would ever coach The System I am not sure my answer would have been 'yes.' Some more specific reasons we are going to The System are I think my players really fit well into The System, we should be deep this season (barring injuries) and I love the participation side of it. All of my players will play so I think that will make team chemistry better than it already is."

(Any other System influences?)

Coach Cline: "Another person that had a huge influence on my decision to go to the System was Coach Dickie McCarthy at Sewanee: The University of the South. I was Coach McCarthy's assistant at Sewanee for four years from 2003-2007. Coach McCarthy is my mentor and when he made the switch to the System in the 2009-10 season I was really struck by how much he enjoyed coaching the System. I think Coach was rejuvenated by coaching the System and that definitely had an impact on my decision to go System.

"Also, I think our situations are similar in that both Sewanee and Knox are selective colleges and we get similar type of athletes. I called Coach several times a week to talk about the pro's and con's of going System before I made the decision and we talk several times a week still about the System."

(What has it been like the past several seasons watching the Grinnell men's team play?)

Coach Cline: "I really enjoy watching the Grinnell men play. Coach Arsenault is a great coach and I think what he has done with his program at Grinnell is remarkable. I think getting the chance to see The System live has definitely help cement my decision to put in The System.

"I love how hard the Grinnell men play and they are so exciting to watch. I want my team to play that hard. So I think watching Grinnell play and getting to know Coach Arsenault over the last three years helped make my decision. Also, I love their defense."

(How much of an influence has it been watching Coach Massey and his team over the previous two seasons?)

Coach Cline: "Yes, watching the Galesburg girls' team play also helped make my decision. I love watching them play and try to make as many of their games as possible. Coach Massey has been a huge help and supporter since I arrived at Knox.

"Coach Massey has also been a invaluable resource as we transition to The System. I talk to Coach Massey a lot about The System and I think he will be very helpful throughout the season. It is a wonderful blessing to have a System coach in Galesburg to lean on."

(Have your shared your decision yet with the players, and if so, what was the reaction?)

Coach Cline: "My players all know about the switch to The System. They are excited now that they have had time to let the idea soak in. Their initial reaction was very mixed but now they can't wait to get started.

"My athletic director has been great about the whole thing and he is 100% supportive. I am very fortunate to have his support and I am sure a lot of AD's wouldn't be as supportive. Coach Massey has been very helpful in educating my AD and others about The System and what to expect. Also, I have a new assistant that is excited about learning The System."

(What do you hope to accomplish with The System?)

Coach Cline: "My main goal is for my players to have a great experience. Also, we hope to represent Knox well and play 100% all the time. I also hope for people to enjoy watching us and bring even more excitement to Knox Women's Basketball."

Great stuff there from someone who truly appreciates The System. Since this is the first time he has been "mimicked," so to speak, in his own conference, I got in touch with Coach A to discuss the development. He got back to me very quickly despite being in California visiting some friends and family, and for that, I am grateful. I particularly wanted to know if the women's coach at Grinnell, Kate Gluckman, might come to him for advice on how to prepare for Knox this season.

Here is what he said.

Coach Arseneault: "Curious to see how it will work out for Emily Cline. My gut feeling is that a number of coaches would like to experiment with The System but feel that they either have to have job security or not care if they get fired should things not go well. I think Mike Worrell from Illinois College would have tried it if he weren't in the conference (he doesn"t want to play second fiddle to us). Given how many coaches seem to be running the same boring thing these days, on any paticular year someone is playing second fiddle to someone anyways, so I really don't understand that rationale.

"Coach Gluckman has already sheepishly asked me whether I would be of help to her when they played Knox -- I sensed she was questioning whether my loyalties were to Grinnell or our System. I reassured her that my loyalties were to Grinnell, although I really don't yet know how I will be advising her (particularly since I do not know how committed Coach Cline is to implementing our System in full)."

Again, thanks for both of these coaches for their time. Oh, I almost forgot one other interest factoid about the upcoming season. Jessica Howard, who set an Illinois state record this past season by making a 139 3-pointers for Coach Massey's team, is set to play for Monmouth College, a conference rival to Grinnell and to Knox. So Coach Cline will be going against two teams who should have some knowledge of The System. I can't wait to see how it works out.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

More good news; another team moving to The System!

Maybe I should just keep my mouth shut. Of all the coaches I have tried to convince to go to The System, none actually have. There sometimes is some interest, and I'm holding out hope for one of them actually to follow through with it, but I'm 0-for-life in making this happen.

That doesn't mean other coaches don't see the benefit of this style.

Take Greg Turcott, for instance. The men's coach at Shoreline (Wash.) Community College, he is all in for making the switch in the 2011-12 season. I've exchanged a couple of e-mails with him and his excitement is completely genuine, I bet he has a lot of success with taking the plunge. His father, Gary, coached at Carroll College from 1990-2009, so he obviously grew up in the business.

The Dolphins (nice mascot!) were 13-13 last season, including 6-10 in the Northern Region. Coach Turcott was kind enough to take the time for a quick e-mail interview while on vacation last week. See, I told you he's enthusiastic! Here is what he had to say, or write:

(Tell me about your decision to go with The System.)

Coach Turcott: "I started to become interested in the sytem after watching a special on ESPN about the Loyola-Marymount team of 1989. I had watched that team play as a youngster and really loved the style. We started playing much more aggressive and uptempo as the year went on and I was amazed at how the game really opened up for our players!"

(How would you describe your offense and defense previously?)

Coach Turcott: "I have been a real fundamentals-first, ball-control, defense-first coach and have had success but also have had lots of conflict with players and never felt real good about the spirit of our teams."

(How did you come across The System?)

Coach Turcott: "After seeing the special I started looking into more on Loyola Marymount and Paul Westhead, and it led me to the Grinnell system and a coach I knew from years ago, Gary Smith who coached at Redlands. Coach Smith was really helpful to me as I got into the whole concept."

(As you learn more, what are some surprises?)

Coach Turcott: "That The System is really pretty simple if you are willing to keep it simple as a coach and do not try to micromanage your players and The System. I am surprised at how successful some players are in the new System that really could not contribute in a more conservative and ball-control style."

(What type of things have you done to education yourself on The System?)

Coach Turcott: "I have watched several tapes done by Paul Westhead on the system and then read the book done by Gary Smith and (Olivet Nazrene women's coach) Doug Porter, which is really good. I have also talked with coach Smith, and contribute to the run and gun (message board) as much as I can. Really good info on the (message board) from coaches who have done this for a while!"

(With whom have you shared the plan, and what was the reaction?)

Coach Turcott: "Shared it with administration, players, and coaches as much as I can and everyone has been supportive."

(What challenges do you foresee?)

Coach Turcott: "Players who really like the ball control, high percentage style of play are going to have a hard time with it at first but that is expected."

(What do you hope to get out of it?)

Coach Turcott: "A high scoring fun style of play that kids will really enjoy!!! Return the game to the players and the fans and let kids be aggressive and free to play and make mistakes in the name of uptempo play."

(Finally, from what you've gathered, what's the best thing about The System?)

Coach Turcott: "It creates a system for the kids to use their athleticism and skills in an uptempo fast pace that is really good for our level."

A huge thanks to Coach Turcott for his team, and I look forward to hearing more about his progress with The System.

Monday, August 1, 2011

"'The System?' We don't need no stinkin' System!"

OK, OK, pretty poor attempt at humor in the headline. It simply was the first thing that popped into my head, so forgive me.

Yet I did want to let everyone know this post was going to be a little different. For one of the few times since I've dedicated this blog to those lovable squads who "run, shoot, rebound, press, sub," it is featuring a non-System coach. Don't worry, this coach and his program still put up amazing numbers, even if they go about it a bit more traditionally than my favorite teams.

Jim Crutchfield has been the head coach at NCAA Division II West Liberty University for seven seasons, and in that time, he has the highest career active winning percentage of any D-II coach at .814 (175-40). In 2010-11, he led the Hilltoppers to their best season, a 33-1 finish that took them all the way to the Final Four in Springfield, Mass., where BYU-Hawaii prevailed in an up-and-down classic, 110-101.

Mostly because West Liberty is in the West Virginia Intercollegiate Athletic Conference with Glenville State, where coach Bunky Harkleroad does his thing with the women's team, I kept up with the Hilltoppers as they mowed through the regular season. It mostly was due to the eye-popping scoring totals they put up: they averaged 153.3 points in their first three games, reached at least 100 in 25 of their games and finished the year scoring 111.3 points per game.

Coach Crutchfield did it more as Paul Westhead and Loyola Marymount did back in the day; that is to say, a shorter player rotation of seven-to-eight players who were in phenomenal physical condition, a constant full-court press that fell back to a more conventional style in the half-court and less of a focus on 3-pointers than System teams. Don't get me wrong, however, West Liberty did shoot the 3. Its nearly 36 attempts from beyond the arc in each game came more from the flow of the offense, rather than as a point of emphasis.

In fact, during our conversation, I got the idea Coach Crutchfield did what he could to distance himself from The System (of course, I am incredibly biased when it comes to this, so perhaps I read it wrong). You will note a couple of occasions during our conversation where he points out that his style is based on "fundamentals," which might be where I misinterpreted his views. Looking back, I believe he really meant "traditional," or "conventional," when differentiating between what he does and what System coaches do. You be the judge.

(How did you develop this high-scoring style at West Liberty?)

Coach Crutchfield: "When I got this job seven years ago, it hadn't been very successful. I felt we needed to do something very different if we were going to change that. Something a little different, not too far off-center, a kind of a package, with half of them on offense and half of them on defense. I continue to tweak them a little more."

(What do you emphasis in this style?)

Coach Crutchfield: "The kind of numbers we put up, I have never once set a goal with our team. We don't care if it takes the full 35 seconds of the shot clock, we want to get a high-percentage shot with our players in good offensive rebounding position. What (System teams do), that's completely different than our philosophy. We want to get the ball back without our opponent scoring. If we do that enough, eventually we're going to win the basketball game.

"I've never looked at how many points we score, and I know if you look at these numbers, you would think we talked about it. But we've gotten pretty good at what we do."

(How would you describe how your team plays?)

Coach Crutchfield: "When I watched a game, there always is a little bit of a lull in that period between offense and defense, where a point guard can find his coach and ask, 'What do you want to run here?' What we've tried to do is take that lull out of the game, that is basically it.

"It's just something that I wanted to do. The very first year, we were picked last in the league, and people thought we were going to control the score, control the tempo. I had never been a walk-it-up-the-court guy. Now, we don't take bad shots. It really has evolved. We put pressure in any situation, and we understand risk vs. reward. We don't take high risks, we're not looking at giving up layups to play uptempo. We play fundamentally, I want to keep my best players on the floor most of the time. It's pretty much a seven- or eight-man rotation."

(Do you think your style is looked at as being a "gimmick," a criticism you often hear when discussing The System?)

Coach Crutchfield: "Not really, and it's because we're beating good teams. I'll be honest, we called Grinnell to see about setting up a game, but they would struggle playing us. I would like to see those two systems going head-to-head. We don't use the platoon, and we're not really running down and launching 3s. You're going to be surprised when you see the final score and we've got 100 points.

"One game, we hit 100 at halftime, but no one really has looked at it as a gimmick, since we play so fundamentally."

(Where do you want to go next with your program?)

Coach Crutchfield: "I have been trying to get a Division I team to play us, and no one will. They say, 'We could lose to you, you've got a good team.' I'm not connected enough. I want to see how it would look against a Division I team. I think you would be surprised."

(Have you had many opportunities to leave for a Division I position?)

Coach Crutchfield: "Honestly, I'm very happy where I'm at. This is a great school, and I'm having a blast. I've gotten a few phone calls this year, but it wasn't the right situation. You look at (Butler coach Brad) Stevens and those guys, hell, I'm 55 years old. I'm an ancient guy in this game. If I were just younger, maybe the jobs would have opened up. A lot of people are looking for somebody younger than 55. If the right situation opened up, I would be open to it."

(What do you expect from your team in the upcoming season?)

Coach Crutchfield: "We lost our top four players, and all were here for four years, all scored at least 1,000 points, and between the four of them, they scored 6,000 points. They were also on the second team when they came in as freshmen and grew up together. I've never had a Division I transfer, never had a junior college guy. Some people would say, 'All they have coming back are subs.' Well, we've done pretty well with subs in the past, when it was their turn on the first team.

"I feel good about the guys coming in, and we have a handful of guys coming back who know how I want to play. We're going to be younger, but we're going to be fine."

A huge thanks to Coach Crutchfield for taking time to speak with me, and I wish him luck in the upcoming season. Unless, of course, he does get that game with Grinnell.