Sunday, November 4, 2012

Why I Love The System

I figured the best way to ease back into this blog would be to reacquaint everyone with the basics of The System, the best, most entertaining style of basketball I've ever seen. I also thought I would share the story of how I come to discover the wonderful way to play a game I've always loved. Sounds fun, right?

First of all, I always have been an offense-kind of fan. That is to say I like to see high-scoring games in whatever sport I happen to be watching: football, baseball, hockey or, of course, hoops. So it should come as no surprise that I was drawn to the Paul Westhead-coached teams at Loyola Marymount teams from back in the day.

What really is surprising that I how I remember discovering this. You would think I would have caught on to what Coach Westhead was doing when he led his Lions against Dean Smith and the North Carolina Tar Heels in the second round of the 1988 NCAA tournament. LMU lost that matchup 123-97, a couple of days after edging Wyoming 119-105, and a new phenomenon was born. Maybe I did notice at the time, I just somehow banished it from my memory.

Yet my first memory of watching Coach Westhead's team came Dec. 17, 1988 -- a full nine months later -- when the Lions traveled to play coach Billy Tubbs and the Oklahoma Sooners. It would be the first of many national TV appearances for Bo Kimble, Hank Gathers, Jeff Fryer and the rest of the run-and-gun LMU fellas, a 136-103 loss. I was mesmerized. The full-court pressure, the up-tempo pace of the game, the high scoring, everything seemed perfectly perfect to me. I truly thought, "This is my basketball Nirvana."

And so I, much as most of the country did, followed the Lions through the next couple of seasons. There were many more tremendous outings on TV, including a rematch with Oklahoma about a year later on LMU's home court, Gersten Pavilion. The Sooners won again 136-121, and LSU edged the Lions a couple of months later in overtime 148-141, but the wins and losses didn't matter to me. I was forever hooked on this type of game.

I cried when Hank Gathers collapsed and died in the final of the West Coast Conference tournament, and I watched with goosebumps as his teammates played their way to the Elite Eight of the 1990 NCAA tournament before losing to eventual national champ UNLV.

The next year, with Kimble and Fryer now graduated and Coach Westhead in the NBA with the Denver Nuggets, I stuck with LMU and new coach Jay Hillock. That team didn't have the name players, and except for a 186-140 victory over U.S. International, didn't score quite as much as the previous teams, but still I watched.

Eventually, Coach Hillock was fired, and no one stepped into his place to keep the game going at a fast pace. Even Coach Westhead wore out his welcome with the Nuggets. I thought I never again would feel the tingle of excitement I felt while watching those Loyola Marymount teams.

Fast forward to Dec. 10, 2002, when I was a Sports Writer with The Associated Press in Atlanta. I was scrolling through "the wire," seeing all the stories that would be the next day's headlines, when a story out of Iowa caught my attention. Drake was playing a game the following day against NCAA Division III Grinnell College, a school that didn't mean anything to me at the time. The yarn by Des Moines, Iowa, writer Chuck Shoffner documented Grinnell's unique style of basketball, and it sounded just as I remembered LMU.

Drake won that game 162-110, with its Division I talent just a little too much for Grinnell. Yet with the wonder of the Internet, I had a new team to follow, and new amazing statistics to follow. Along the way I discovered the University of the Redlands, another D-III team from California which also used this style.

At the time, I was a little protective of Grinnell and was jealous when the 2004-05 Redlands squad set the all-division record by averaging 132.4 points. I later came to find out that all this was done using the exact method Grinnell used, so that made it a little easier to swallow.

Now, all these years later, there are a handful of college teams and even more high school ones employing the up-tempo style I came to know as The System, which essentially took what Coach Westhead was doing to different level. For those newbies out there, here is how it works:

- All-out, trapping defensive pressure all over the court, all the time.

- Five-for-five substitutions every 35-45 seconds to ease fatigue.

- Constant pursuit for offensive rebounds, the lifeblood of The System.

- Shoot half your shots from beyond the 3-point line.

- Never, ever stop!

Through e-mail, I introduced myself to Grinnell coach David Arseneault, now-retired Redlands coach Gary Smith and a host of other coaches I met through a Yahoo! message board devoted to those daring (crazy?) enough to go to The System. I traveled to Grinnell to watch two games in December 2009, and then followed that up with a trip to Bluefield, W.Va., about a year later to watch see the NCAA Division II women's team at Glenville State, where coach Bunky Harkleroad brought The System.

My enjoyment from this way of playing only has grown, and here are a few reasons The System is so perfect to me:

- Everyone gets a chance to play. Grinnell often plays up to 20 players a game, and the high schools regularly use 15 or more. As a somewhat-frustrated high school player who hardly got any run, I can appreciate this.

- The focus stays on you, not your opponent. If a System team played Princeton, you wouldn't see any back cuts, any back-door layups or any of the other stuff that draws some people to the offense made famous by former Princeton coach Pete Carril.

- The players have the luxury of making mistakes. Too often I see a player throw an errant pass and immediately get removed from the game. Or I see a coach who cautions his team to slow the pace and run a set play, one that the other team undoubtedly has prepared for, then work the shot clock (in college) down to the waning seconds before hoisting up a contest long-range jumper.

The best way I can describe The System to someone who never has seen it is to compare it to a team trailing by 10 points with 2 minutes remaining in a game. The losing team does everything it can to gain possession and doesn't necessarily worry if the other team gets a layup. It's all about creating possessions, which is what The System is built upon.

I don't update the blog as often as I should (not that anyone misses it, but I feel as if I'm letting down the coaches and players I care so much about), but my mind never strays too far from these teams and their outside-the-box strategy. I figured it was time for everyone to rediscover them with an update on the 2011-12 season, starting with the colleges I regularly follow. 


With Coach David Arseneault on sabbatical to work on his latest book about his creation, he turned over the team to his son and former point guard, Dave. It proved to be a wise decision.

The Pioneers opened with 11 consecutive victories, then after the first loss to eventual Midwest Conference tournament champ Carroll, won five more games to run their record to 16-1 (12-1 MWC). Three losses in the final five games dropped Grinnell to the No. 2 seed for the conference tournament, where a 13-for-62 performance from the 3-point line (21 percent) led to a loss to third-seeded St. Norbert.

The Pioneers finished 18-5, another stellar mark, and put up big numbers to lead all NCAA divisions in scoring (again) with 110.9 points per contest. Guard Griffin Lentsch was named to the all-MWC first-team and was chosen to play on a group of D-III all-stars who traveled to Europe to play five exhibition games over the summer.

Oh, I almost forgot. He also dropped 89 points on Principia in the first game of the season, a Division III record. 


The Tigers, coached by Doug Porter, won 16 consecutive games at one point en route to a perfect 10-0 mark in the Chicagoland Collegiate Athletic Conference before falling to Robert Morris in the semifinals of the conference tournament.

ONU then lost in the opening round of the NAIA national tournament to Shorter University 84-83, a heartbreaking end to what was an incredible season. The Tigers finished 27-5, their second consecutive season with 27 victories, and led all collegiate divisions by averaging 103.5 points. That's the good news.

The less-than-good news, at least for us ONU fans, is that Coach Porter retired following the season and turned over his program to assistant Lauren Stamatis. Don't fret, however, since he decided to help a friend install The System at North Central College, just up the road from Olivet Nazarene.

With Coach Stamatis sticking with The System, that gives us another team to track. Win-win, right?


Coach Harkleroad's season ended with disappointment, too, with a 97-76 loss to West Virginia Wesleyan in the final of the West Virginia Intercollegiate Athletic Conference tournament final. Still, it shouldn't have ended there.

The Pioneers, who were 23-7 and 18-4 in the WVIAC, somehow were snubbed on an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament despite sharing the regular season conference title. Glenville State led D-II with 94.3 points per game and led its conference with a point differential of 13.4.


The Jets, coached by Andy Hoaglin, finished 23-7 and 12-4 in the Michigan Community College Athletic Association, winning one game in the National Junior College Athletic Association district tournament before falling to eventual national runner-up Lake Michigan 101-82.

The Jets had won 98-94 at Lake Michigan earlier in the season. Jackson CC averaged more than 100 points again, leading all junior college divisions.


We finish up with our three first-year teams that I followed, including this one from Grinnell's conference. The Prairie Fire finished 4-19, including 4-14 in the MWC, for coach Emily Cline. Along the way, Knox averaged 83.5 points.

Three of the victories came in a four-game span; this included the Prairie Fire's highest-point total of the season when they beat Beloit 114-100, a new school record for Knox. 


A first-year System team, the Aggies finished 5-21 overall and 2-10 in the Heartland Conference under coach Brad Vanden Boogaard, who since has moved on to Clarendon Junior College in Texas.

OPSU trailed only Glenville State in scoring for the season, averaging 88.9 points.

SHORELINE (WASH.) COMMUNITY COLLEGE NCJCAA MEN'S TEAM Another first-year System team which featured a familiar name: Bo Kimble stepped in to assist coach Greg Turcott early in the season and helped the Dolphins finish 19-12, including 10-6 in the Northwest Athletic Association of Community Colleges.

Shoreline averaged 101.6 points

So, let's total these records from the six main collegiate teams running The System: including those tough first seasons at Knox and OPSU, the overall record is 119-66, a .643 winning percentage. Not bad, right?

Check back in later in the week and I'll let everyone know how some of our favorite high school teams fared last season. Thanks.

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