Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Transfers, other newcomers help North Central to record-setting start

The more I learn about The Grinnell System, the more fun it is to watch a team which really gets it, one which stays true to the mantra of “Run, Shoot, Press, Rebound, Sub” with little or no regard to the score. A wonderful example of this is the NCAA Division III women’s team at North Central College, based in Naperville, Ill.

From the opening tip until the final horn – presuming the margin isn’t too lopsided in their favor – the Cardinals keep getting after it. That effort, among other reasons, is why coach Michelle Roof’s squad is off to a school-record 10-0 start heading into Christmas break while averaging 102.5 points.

Consider the two most recent victories:
  • On Dec. 16, when North Central won on the road at Monmouth 112-76, it tied a Division III record with 26 made 3-pointers. 
  • On Dec. 19, in a come-from-behind 110-93 victory over the University of Dubuque, the Cardinals finished 19-for-75 from behind the line, breaking their own record of 72 set Nov. 22 in a 117-115 double-overtime victory Millsaps.

 “When it’s clicking, the energy you feel, you can’t compare it to anything else,” Roof said. “It’s just one of the things I love about coaching The System.  It’s all about pumping our kids up and celebrating with them.”

Roof and lead assistant Doug Porter have done a lot of that so far this season. The Cardinals lead Division III with 102.5 points and 16.2 3-pointers per game, and their third in the country with 16.8 steals in each contest.

Porter, you might remember, ran The System at NAIA Olivet Nazarene until he retired in the spring of 2012. His assistant at the time, Lauren Stamatis, took over and continues to do wonderful things with this style of play.

While Porter was contemplating what to do, he was contacted by longtime friend Roof. She had contemplated taking the plunge with The System for several years, even attending the Run-and-Gun clinics conducted by Grinnell College coach David Arseneault and others. Having Porter on her staff was the final push she needed to do it.

“I really thought I wanted to go for it,” Roof said. “We had the depth, we had the athletes, we had the personnel to do it. And we really needed to get something going with our program, build some enthusiasm and some energy.

“Thankfully, he agreed to join us. Now that we’re in our third season, the players are really excited about, they really like it, and they’ve bought in.”

The Cardinals have gotten a big boost this season from two new players, transfers Jamie Cuny and Tess Godhardt. Each has won a player of the week honor from the College Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin (wow, that’s a mouthful), and Cuny also was named national D-III player of the week for the same time frame by the U.S. Basketball Writers Association.

She got the first triple-double in school history in a victory over Carroll University earlier this month, finishing with 12 points, 12 rebounds and 10 blocks. At 6-foot-2, Cuny plays at the back of the press on defense and serves as trailer for the offense.

Her average of 4.2 blocks is fifth in the country in Division III.

“She’s the perfect safety in The System,” Porter said of Cuny, who started her career at the University of Illinois at Springfield. “She is an uncanny shot blocker. Offensively, she’s not flashy, she just knocks down shots.”

Godhardt, a 5-10 post player who came on board from conference foe Elmhurst College, is the leading scorer for North Central at 18.3 points per game. Interestingly, for a team which gets the majority of its baskets from beyond the arc, she has made only one 3 this season, using a team-high average of 4.9 offensive rebounds to control the paint.

She also leads the team with 2.3 steals per game.

“We tried to get her to come to Olivet, but she went to another school and ended up not being happy,” Porter said of Godhardt, who made the CCIW all-conference team as a freshman at Elmhurst. “She’s a very talented post player. She’s just very productive as a scorer and a rebounder.”

Along with Cuny and Godhardt, Roof brought in eight freshmen with in her recruiting class, and six of them have gotten run in all 10 games. Of course, this being The System, playing time is spread out across the roster, with 12 players averaging between 12 and 20 minutes.

Godhardt leads with right at 20 minutes per game and Cuny is at 19.

All this has led to quite a turnaround for Roof, Porter and the program. In their first two years playing this way, the Cardinals were a combined 24-27 overall and 10-18 in the conference. Still, that was an improvement over the previous three seasons – 20-55 overall and 7-35 in the CCIW.

“The first year, we had some success we really hadn’t had in a long time, and we were really excited,” Roof said. “Last year, we had a little slump, and that hindered us reaching our full potential. But we brought in some pretty good players this year, and it’s full speed ahead. The kids love it.”

Roof actually saw The System for the first time during her tenure as a women’s assistant at Grinnell, watching Arseneault experiment with his creation. 

“I just fell in love with the intensity and the passion his kids played with,” Roof said of her time at Grinnell. “I had not experienced that before, and I just really loved the way they played.”

In fact, Porter points to the use of the Grinnell-style offense this year as another reason for the improvement. This replaced the dribble-drive action he first came up with at Olivet Nazarene and originally helped install at North Central.

The Grinnell offense essentially leaves the ball in the point guard’s hand almost exclusively, with each shift or group featuring a preferred shooter. The other three players look for opportunities to screen for the shooter until a shot is taken.

“The problem with the dribble-drive approach, and we found it at North Central, is that it is a more high turnover offense, it’s not quite as efficient,” Porter said. “Coach Arseneault developed the Grinnell offense when he had very limited depth, so he had the right guys shooting, the right guys passing, and everybody else was screening and rebounding.

“That’s what basketball is, setting up your players to excel. He just did it at an extreme tempo. That’s really the genius in what coach Arseneault created.”

North Central still has one non-conference game remaining, a trip to Eureka College on Dec. 30. After that, the Cardinals begin the gauntlet that is the CCIW, where seven of the eight teams are ranked in the top 70 in the Massey Ratings.

Oh, and that’s out of 450 D-III schools.

“That’s pretty impressive,” Porter said. “It’s not going to be easy for anyone to go undefeated in our conference, and it will be difficult to get through without two or three losses.”

Win or lose, the Cardinals will give each opponent their best effort.

“With this style, you automatically know that you’re going to get maximum effort from your team 25 nights a year,” Roof said. “There’s not really any other style that does that. You just know that your team is ready to go.

“There’s really no other way to do it.”

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