Sunday, October 26, 2014

The System is going pro: Arseneault hired to coach in the D-League

Dave Arseneault was ready for another season at NCAA Division III Grinnell, his 10th consecutive as either a player or assistant coach in the program run by his father. A successful offseason of recruiting brought them 11 new players, or "first-years," as they are known at the small school located in the cornfields of Iowa. The future looked very bright.

Then a phone call changed that outlook -- the Reno Bighorns, an NBA D-League affiliate of the Sacramento Kings, wanted to know if the younger Arseneault would be interested in discussing their head coaching position.

"I wasn't looking for a job, I was very excited about the upcoming season at Grinnell," Arseneault said a few days ago in a phone interview from Iowa. "I went out and interviewed, and I certainly gave them the impression of how I would coach."

That included a full description of "The System," a style of play created nearly 25 years ago at Grinnell by David Arseneault that relies on constant full-court pressure on a defense, an offense based on shooting quick 3-pointers and a five-for-five substitution pattern that resembles hockey shifts. It has helped the Pioneers lead all levels of college basketball in scoring in 19 of the past 21 years, and it led to Jack Taylor setting the single-game scoring record when he put up 138 points in November 2012.

Dave Arseneault, who often goes by "Junior" even though he and his father have different middle initials, played point guard for four seasons and once had a then-record 34 assists in a game. His mark was topped last season by Grinnell's Patrick Maher, who had 37 in a 164-144 victory over College of Faith. Since graduating, Arseneault has been given more and more responsibility within the program, to the point where he made nearly all the decisions in games and at practices in the past couple of seasons.

The System has evolved somewhat with his input, but the tenants are the same: run, shoot, rebound, press, sub. And repeat when necessary.

"When you talk to some people about The System, they look at you like you have three eyes, or you're from the moon," Dave Arseneault said. "But right away, I could see the Kings have the type of organization that was into it. They obviously had done a lot of research, and it they showed during my interview that they were open to trying something different."

The official announcement of Arseneault's hiring came October 17, and since then, he's been busy prepping for the upcoming season. The D-League draft is Nov. 1, and training camp will start a couple of days after that. There isn't much time until the opener: Reno hosts the Iowa Energy on Nov. 14.

"It's a quick turnaround, so it's going to be up to me to keep it simple," Arseneault said. "I think our system can be taught very quickly."

Already, he has reached out to former D-League coach Nick Nurse, now an assistant with the Toronto Raptors, and current Rio Grande coach Nevada Smith, with whom he spent a lot of time at a recent coaches' meeting. Last season, Smith's squad led all of professional basketball by scoring 123.1 points per game, helped by an average of about 45 3-point attempts.

Rio Grande, the Houston Rockets D-League affiliate, finished 30-20 and reached the semifinals in the D-League playoffs.

Before his opportunity in Rio Grande, Smith was the head coach at Division III Keystone College in Pennsylvania, so he already was familiar with Arseneault, Grinnell and The System; each often is criticized among the D-III community for a variety of reasons.

"Certainly, I heard that, but I heard the same thing last year at Rio Grande," Smith said in a phone interview from Houston, where he is spending the preseason working with the Rockets. "There are a lot of ways to win basketball games, and it's not up to me or anyone else to decide what is the best way."

And make no mistake, Arseneault plans to run The System with the Bighorns. Certainly, there will be adjustments, since D-League rosters are limited to 10 players, or a maximum of 12 if the parent club assigns up to two players to its affiliate. Grinnell often dressed as many as 20 players for a game and regularly played up to 18 of them.

There's also a shorter shot clock, down to 24 seconds from 35, and a longer 3-point line, which is 23 feet and 9 inches, or 3 feet longer than the college one. Playing a full-court, trapping defense for 48 minutes also will be a challenge.

"We did some pressing last year in Rio Grade and had some success," Smith said. "But it's very difficult, guys can handle the ball so well and are very talented."

Smith also told Arseneault how essential it was to get buy-in from the players, which always is important, but even more so when planning to play unconventionally.

"I told him that if you prove it, then they'll believe it," Smith said. "We were fortunate last year to get off to a good start. If we had opened up 0-5, things might have been different."

Either way, Arseneault figures to stick with it.

"Dave is a very confident guy, and I don't think a few losses is going to change how he coaches or how his team players," said Ross Preston, a former player at Grinnell whose recent book, "The Road to 138," gave the history of The System.

"It will be a new experience, and as with any new experience, there will be challenges, but Dave is a great coach. He'll figure it out."

No one from the Bighorns or the Kings responded to an e-mail asking for comment on Arseneault's hiring. Still, it seems clear they made the hire fully expecting to see The System, or some version of it. After all, they easily could have hired a coach with more professional basketball experience, one who ran traditional sets and played strictly half-court defense.

Analytics are more important in basketball, and more and more teams are making 3-pointers a regular part of their offense. Last season in the NBA, teams averaged nearly 22 attempts from beyond the arc, an increase of about three shots per game from five years previously.

It was even more pronounced in the D-League, where teams averaged 25 3-point attempts. (By comparison, Grinnell took about 56 3s a game.)

"You know, it's interesting. My dad, without analytics and using his brain and some common sense, I guess, decided that his teams should rely on the 3-pointer 25 years ago," Arseneault said. "Maybe it was blind luck, or maybe he was smarter than everyone else. I don't know how my dad came up with this."

For the elder Arseneault, who often talks about using basketball as a test lab to see what offensive concoction he can come up with next, his son's hiring can be seen as another validation of The System.

"Awesome opportunity and quite frankly, we were both shocked when he was called to interview," David Arseneault wrote in an e-mail. "Nice to know there are people out there in the basketball ranks willing to experiment."

If that experiment in Reno ever should struggle, the new coach has a great resource to lean on for help.

"The System being his baby, he's just as curious as I am to see if he will work the professional level," the younger Arseneault said of his father. "He and I often wondered how it would work with better athletes and better players, what would translate and what wouldn't.

"He's very excited for me. He essentially set me up to do this, he helped me develop as a person and a coach. I could not be more thankful for that."