Wednesday, December 31, 2014

My way of saying Happy New Year (or why I came to love The System)

I never really thought about it until recently, but December and I have quite the relationship with The System. In fact, all the important dates of my infatuation with this tantalizing style of basketball celebrate their anniversary during this month. It’s similar to Christmas, except without Santa Claus, or carols, or ugly sweaters, or a tree decorated with crafts and lights … well, at least we all receive gifts in the form of 3-pointers, steals and high-scoring games.

But I digress. With the month (and the year) winding down, I figured I’d share my stories.

My first view of The System came in December 1988, when Oklahoma traveled to little-known (at least to me at the time) Loyola Marymount, where a national cable TV audience watched the Sooners roll to a 136-103 victory. That was Dec. 17, 1988, to be exact, and watching that game fascinated me as no other one ever had.

Was it the full-court press? Yes. Was it the amount of points scored? Yes. Was it the freedom with which both teams played? YES! The Loyola Marymount Lions, with coach Paul Westhead and stars Bo Kimble and Hank Gathers, became my favorite team, and I watched whenever I could.

I still remember several of their televised games – a loss in overtime to Shaquille O’Neal and LSU, a rout of LaSalle when Westhead, Kimble and Gathers celebrated a return to their Philadelphia roots – and recorded many of them. And as so many did, I fought off tears when Gathers collapsed and died on the court during the 1990 West Coast Conference tournament, then celerated when LMU reached the Elite Eight of that year’s NCAA tournament.

The second-round victory against reigning champ Michigan still is one of my favorite games, and I have a DVD of it that I watch frequently.

Then when Westhead left for the Denver Nuggets, Kimble graduated and everything sort of fell apart, I still followed the Lions with new coach Jay Hillock. He was fired after two seasons, and with his departure, I accepted that The System was gone forever.

Fast forward to 2002, when I was working with The Associated Press in Atlanta. I was perusing the sports wire one day when I came across a story about a tiny NCAA Division III school in Iowa which put up numbers similar to Westhead’s team at LMU. Only this team did it a different way, with five-for-five substitutions every minute and a reliance, an emphasis, on 3-pointers.

On Dec. 11, 2002, Grinnell College played a Division I school for the final time, losing to Drake 162-110, and with the Internet as my companion, I had a new favorite team.

I left the AP in 2006 but that did nothing to quell my enjoyment of watching coach David Arseneault and his Pioneers. In 2008, I reached out to Coach A for the first time and wrote a piece for my local newspaper on this frenetic and amazing way of playing the sport I loved. So what if no one in Rockingham, N.C., really cared? My mission was to share the news of The System with anyone who would listen.

This blog came about early in 2009 and became another outlet for updates on Grinnell. With my 40th birthday coming up later that summer, I got the OK from my wife to make the pilgrimage to Iowa – in December, of course – to see The System in person. The trip to Iowa was amazing, even if I did happen to pick one of only two losing seasons in the past 10 to visit. Grinnell lost both games during my stay, but it hardly mattered.

Coach A spent nearly two hours with me and a travel companion, a buddy from home whom my daughter, Libbie, dubbed “Iowa Tim.” And I got to spend time with Dave Arseneault Jr., as well; at the time, he was less than a year removed from his career as a point guard on his father’s team and seemed unsure of what his future held. Now, of course, Dave is the head coach of the Reno Bighorns in the NBA Development League, the affiliate of the Sacramento Kings, where he is implementing Coach A’s version of The System.

I chronicled my adventure for “Basketball Times” magazine, and during my research for the article, I got to know many other coaches around the country who believed in The System. They followed Coach A’s philosophy and I discovered it was spread amongst colleges, high schools and even middle schools.

One question I often get is how is what LMU did different than what Grinnell and others are doing now? There are a couple of major differences in the philosophy, and neither has anything to do with Xs and Os.

Westhead used his best players for the vast majority of the game. Kimble, Gathers, guard Jeff Fryer and forward Per Stumer (who had great hair!) each averaged more than 30 minutes of run. As you likely know, the Grinnell System is predicated on five-for-five substitutions every 45-to-60 seconds. This enables Coach A and his disciples to continue an all-out assault for a turnover even in the halfcourt.

Westhead’s teams pressed hard in the backcourt but retreated into a sagging man-to-man defense once the ball crossed the time line. At Grinnell this season, no one plays more than 21.1 minutes each game, and 12 players get at least 10. So you can run and press, but to be considered a “Grinnell” team, you have to distribute the playing time across your roster.

The quest for 3-pointers is another area of contrast. In 1989-90, when LMU reached the final eight in the NCAA tournament, Westhead’s squad shot 23 3-pointers per game. Grinnell is AVERAGING 58.4 attempts so far through 10 games this season. Remember, one of The Formula stats for The System is to shoot at least half your shots from beyond the arc.

None of this is to say one approach is better than the other, or that The System is the only way to play the game. I joke about it being the best, but most people understand any style can be successful if you have a committed coaching staff and roster.

For example: I can’t stand watching the Virginia Cavaliers play, with coach Tony Bennett instructing his squad to slow the pace. Through 11 games, they allow their opponents to score about 46 points a game on about 60 possessions in each one (Grinnell averages about 100). They play so methodically it ruins what I love about basketball. Yet Bennett has his team undefeated and ranked in the top five, so it’s certainly hard to argue with the results.

I will admit I become a little defensive when people question whether the Grinnell System has been or could be as successful as other methodologies.

Ed Isaacson, who writes an NBA draft blog for a Website called, was an early naysayer of Reno’s style of play, wondering via Twitter why any team would use it since Grinnell never has won a national championship. His reasoning appeared to be that this was the only validation for success.

Has the Princeton offense ever won a national championship? Has the Triangle offense that Phil Jackson forced upon the New York Knicks this season ever won anything without Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Kobe Bryant or Shaq as one of the players? What a horrible criticism.

And for the record: in the 25 years before Coach A took over at Grinnell, the Pioneers were 106-437 (.195), including a record of 0-22 in 1979-80. His record in the 25 seasons since is 329-247, a relatively gaudy winning percentage of .571 and an incredible turnaround in the history of the program.

Regardless of what Isaacson or anyone else thinks, I always will support The System and the teams and coaches who make it look so fun. I would encourage anyone who still has an open mind to watch Grinnell play, or the women’s teams at Sacramento State, NCAA Division III North Central College or NAIA Division II Olivet Nazarene. Each of those teams plays the vast majority of its games live on the Internet, and Grinnell and Olivet Nazarene have an on-demand feature for previous ones.

While you watch, don’t worry about the score, or who won or lost. Watch the effort of the players on the court. Watch the bench, where their teammates are passionately cheering for them. Watch the coaches, particularly Coach A, who often passively watch their teams play without constant instruction. And watch and listen for the fans, who cheer each steal, 3-pointer and other great plays with great zeal.

The System isn’t the only way to play. It just is my favorite.

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.”

Monday, December 22, 2014

Olivet Nazarene off to fast start with Hengesbach leading the way

A great way of learning about The Grinnell System is seeing it person. An even better way? Well, being on the opposing team might be one.

That’s what happened to Abbey Hengesbach, then an NAIA All-America guard at Concordia (Mich.) University who took the court in the opening round of the 2013 National Tournament against Olivet Nazarene. Hengesbach finished with 28 points, 15 rebounds, seven assists, three steals and two blocks as her team eliminated the Tigers 90-80.

(Quick side note: ONU made only one of its first 19 shots from beyond the 3-point line and finished 9-for-47 in that one. Still, the Tigers eventually got within one point in the second half, which is a wonderful testament not only to The System but to the effort of their coaches and players.)

When Hengesbach decided to take a year off from basketball and find a different school, one of those she considered was NAIA Division II Olivet Nazarene -- based in Bourbonnais, Ill. -- through coach Lauren Stamatis.

“I talked with a couple of schools pretty seriously,” Hengesbach said. “Coach just sold me on Olivet as a whole. Obviously, The System wasn’t anything I was used to. She felt like I would play well in it, and here we are.”

So far, her decision appears to have worked out. Hengesbach is second in NAIA Division II at 24.1 points per game for the Tigers, who have won eight of their past nine games to move to 11-4 (3-1 Chicagoland Collegiate Athletic Conference) headed into Christmas break. She is tied for fourth with an average of 4.33 steals and seventh with an average of 5.4 assists.

And along the way, Stamatis’ squad is averaging 111.9 points, better than their NAIA record of 107.5 from last season.

Hengesbach has been a big part of that, part of a 15-player rotation (this is The System, remember?) that includes nine freshman. So with Hengesbach, Stamatis has 10 brand-new players getting it done.

“Having so many new girls learning it at one time helped us all, I think,” Hengesbach said. “Having them go through the process with me has made it less stressful, that was really helpful.”

Stamatis is in her third season running the program at Olivet Nazarene, taking over when Doug Porter retired. She served as Porter’s graduate assistant for two years before becoming the first full-time assistant in 2009, so she’s seen the ups and downs of what the school refers to as “TigerBall.” She doesn’t plan on changing.

“It’s funny, Coach Porter asked me when I was his grad assistant how I would want my team to play if I was head coach,” Stamatis said. “After about my second year here, I knew there was no other way I would want to coach. To see the players have success and to see how much they love it as a group is amazing.

“I knew even if I left, this is how I would want my teams to play.”

Stamatis first saw The System as an undergrad, as a member of the women’s team at the University of the Redlands in southern California. At the time, the men’s program was run by Gary Smith, and his teams set many NCAA Division III records.

“When I first saw it, my first thought was, ‘This is crazy, this is not basketball,’” she said. “I had no idea what was going on. You have a certain perception of what basketball should be, and this wasn’t it. You don’t really understand what they’re trying to do.

“It wasn’t until I started learning about it that I realized there were specific goals they were trying to reach, and there was a method to it. I really liked it.”

Certainly, given the way her team does it, there is a lot to like about what Stamatis is doing at Olivet Nazarene. All 15 players have played in all 15 games – getting between 6 and 18 minutes of run per game – and 13 of them have made a 3-pointer. Everyone averages more 1.2 points, too.

One adjustment that Hengesbach worried about was sharing playing time, or least, sitting out more than half the game. She has discovered that isn’t a problem.

“When I played in traditional basketball, you always feel like you’re trying to save energy throughout the game, because you know you’re going to be in there for a while,” she said. “Now constantly going 100 percent is more of a habit, and it’s a little easier.

“Coach had told me when you have your shift, you’re so excited, and that’s the truth. Obviously, the style we play, you’re going 100 percent all the time. Personally, I’m much more efficient when I’m on the court.”

That was the case late last week when the Tigers won both games at the JustAGame Holiday Classic at Wisconsin Dells in Wisconsin. In the opener, a 120-103 victory over William Penn University, Hengesbach had 22 points (one of seven players in double figures), seven rebounds, seven assists and three steals.

She backed that up by joining fourth teammates in double figures when Olivet Nazarene beat Buena Vista University 116-110, as Hengesbach totaled 16 points, nine assists, six rebounds and six steals.

With all those young players, the future clearly is bright for Stamatis’ program. She had led Olivet Nazarene to the national tournament in each of her two previous seasons, and there is little reason to think this year will be any different. Her new players are getting it, the returning ones continue to push the pace and achieve The System goals, and everybody appears to be having fun doing it.

“During finals week, a few of them were saying they were planning to go home for Christmas and watch their high schools play,” Stamatis said. “They were saying how boring regular basketball was going to be to them. They said, ‘Coach, I don’t think I could ever play that way again.’

“So they’re sold on it, and they’re having success. That’s a great thing.”