Grinnell's System begins to take hold

More news about: Grinnell

By Mark Simon

It is basketball. Maybe not the way you and I know it, but it is the same game, with the same rules and the same objective.

If you had a 3-point attempt for every sign, you might get through the first half of the game.

But the way we are about to describe is even more different than other systems. These teams play it at 78 rpm, racing up and down the floor. On offense they look for the best shot, usually a 3-pointer as quickly as they can get it. On defense they press fullcourt and in halfcourt, and they don’t give an inch of the 94 feet, but willingly surrender a layup attempt if they can’t get a steal.

They play it hockey-style, shifting players in and out every minute in waves of five. Chaos is good and desired. They play it to wear you down. Since they’re playing twice as many players as their opponent, they only get half as tired.

It looks wacky, but those who play this way swear by it. You may feel like you’ve been in The Twilight Zone if you’ve seen it in action. It is basketball in another dimension. Perhaps it’s basketball for the 21st century

Grinnell men’s coach Dave Arseneault has seen this system work long enough to know that it is legitimate. Flukes die out after a season, or two, don’t they?

“A lot of coaches don’t think what I’m doing is basketball. They have their own idea of what basketball is.”

The Pioneers have been playing this way since 1993. Arseneault, who began coaching in this small Iowa town of 8,000 in 1989, realized that the program, which once strung together 25 consecutive non-winning seasons, needed to play at extremes to win.

He tried a speed-up-the-pace style in 1991-92, but the players got tired quickly and voted to slow things down. So Arseneault changed things up completely, trying to win by holding the ball and eating up the shot clock.

That didn’t work either, so at the end of the season, the players had two votes. One was to crank things back up to an even greater extreme than before. The other was not to vote again.

The goals of Grinnell’s system are as follows:

  • 100 shots per game
  • 50 3-point attempts per game
  • 32 turnovers forced
  • A shot differential of plus-30
  • An offensive rebounding percentage of 33%

Those are lofty numbers, accomplished by a strategy that requests a shot from either side within 12 seconds The easiest way to achieve them is for every player to go full speed, maximum effort on every possession, on both offense and defense. To do that, Grinnell plays a platoon system that Arseneault learned while coaching a couple of decades ago in Canada. Players substitute in pre-arranged shifts, lasting 35 to 55 seconds (a new group comes in at just about every whistle).

The numbers tell the story
Leading scorer Steve Wood is averaging 29 points per game. Point guard Ken Heiser is averaging 10 assists per game and just broke the team record for assists in a game with 16. Neither is averaging more than 20 minutes a game.
Opponents are shooting 62% from the field to Grinnell’s 44%, but Grinnell is outscoring them by an average of 18 points per game.

Steve Nordlund is tops on a squad making 21 3-pointers per game, having drained 28 in 70 attempts.

Arseneault used to have three groups of five players to rotate, but adjusted slightly to have some players partake in every other shift. As a result, 11 players are averaging double figures in minutes, with no one playing more than 20 per game. The difference is that a player will be on the floor for more offensive possessions in 20 minutes then he would if he played 40 minutes in a normal system. If someone goes a couple of shifts without a shot, Arseneault makes sure the team tries to get him a look.

The real secret to scoring as much as Grinnell does (it has led the nation in scoring every season since 1993-94 and is tallying 133 per game this season in its 5-0 start) is not so much in the offense, as it is in the defense. The numbers in the box score get goofy. Arseneault pointed to one game last season where Grinnell’s opponent shot 22-for-26 in the first half, yet the Pioneers led by 19 points.

“I get these calls all the time from coaches who say ‘How come you score so many points?’ " said Arseneault, whose team has won three MWC championships using this system. “I always tell them that it’s because we allow so many. If we give up a layup on a spread-out floor, we can get a five-on-four going the other way, which makes a difficult shot much easier for our guy. It is unsettling for some coaches to give up that many layups, but it quickens the pace of play. It’s high risk, but high reward.”

Arseneault put out a videotape and a book explaining the system. He knows most of the strategies and positioning, since a lot of it was his own tinkering. He has invited coaches out to Grinnell for more detailed discussions and has visited high school coaches in other parts of the country. He may not be popular among coaches in the MWC or in conservative, rural Iowa, but the team has a nice following around the country. Recently, Arseneault and Bob Belf, a high school coach in Michigan, started an e-mail group devoted to coaching the style that is growing rapidly. There are 28 members, with coaches represented from New York to Hawaii. It even pops up in places you wouldn’t expect, where some consider the traditional style of basketball sacred

“You could argue this is the way you should play, because everyone plays as hard as they can when they’re in the game.” said Chris Davis, who implemented the style this season with the Lawrence High team he coaches, located across the street from the University of Kansas. “Our team has jumped in with both feet. The reaction has been very positive..”

Coming home
Arseneault had promised Colby head coach Dick Whitmore that he would bring his team to his alma mater. The time has come. Whitmore, in his 33rd season, will give his team a look at something the likes of which they have never seen.

“I’ve been around long enough to know that great basketball comes in all packages,” Whitmore said. “This is very much its own package. I think it’s wonderful.”

Grinnell will be making a trip to Maine to play St. Joseph’s and Arseneault’s alma mater, Colby on Jan. 2 and 3, so there will be a chance for curiosity seekers in New England to get a look.

What they’ll see is a style that makes “40 Minutes of Hell” look like a cakewalk to play through. It’s anything but that for the players and for the fans.

“My kids have fun,” said Arseneault. “The fan support is fantastic. We not only pack our gym at home (Darby Gym is closing at season’s end), we are a big draw on the road. My feeling is, why shouldn’t you do this? What do you have to lose?

"The kids have a good time. Isn’t that what it’s about?”

Adapting the system
“The purpose of a liberal arts education is to broaden your horizons. I’m going to ask you to do that. What you’re going to do is the complete opposite of everything you’ve ever been taught.”

It was with that introduction that Muhlenberg women’s basketball coach Ron Rohn introduced a new system to his players on the first day of practice. He had studied it closely, done the math to figure out if he could make it work, and talked to coaches, all of whom said it wouldn’t succeed. He needed his players to buy into this plan, and they did.

The numbers tell the story
At the Scotty Wood Tournament, Muhlenberg had two players who play the same position earn All-Tournament honors. Starting shooting guard Gwen Doyle (below) scored 26 points in 28 minutes in the two games, and her backup, Erin DeVaney, scored 21 points in 29 minutes. They were never on the floor at the same time.

 Muhlenberg has broken the school record for 3-pointers three times, hitting 13 in a win against Bryn Mawr.
Doyle, Devaney, Susan Marchiano, Jill Friedman and Kristen Piscadlo are the team’s top five scorers. Each is averaging at least 8.5 ppg despite none playing more than 15 minutes per game.

“Last year I had 18 kids, and there wasn’t really that much of a difference between our first five and our third five, other than that our third five didn’t play,” said Rohn, now in his third season as head coach after previous stops at Colgate and Manhattan. “We went 17-8 last season and 21-4 two years ago, so we weren’t doing this to win more. I started following Grinnell after their game with (Division I) Drake, read about the three-pointers and substitution patterns and thought this was what I’d like to do.”

“Three weeks into practice, we scrimmaged a guys’ intramural team. They were breaking our press and dunking on us. We found out two important things that day. One was that our kids in the game needed a break after about a minute, 15 seconds. We also found that we could get shots against them, because we could get a 4-on-2 the other way, so we stayed with them (in points).”

The early results are favorable for the only Division III team fully committed to this way of play. Muhlenberg (5-0), which had scored 100 points only once in 740 previous games, did so in its first two games this season. The Mules have scored 90 or more four times already, more than any season in team history. All 18 players, who sprint on and sprint off the court to keep the game moving at a quick pace, have played in every half, and combine to force nearly 40 turnovers per game. Scoring efficiency (points per minute) has increased for just about every player on the roster, even though minutes and scoring averages have decreased for some.

“All 18 of our players feel important,” said Rohn,. “Every one has made at least one great play per game. That’s the kind of feeling that will make us better.”

Rohn is still fine-tuning the system to adjust to the women’s game. Muhlenberg takes shots quickly, but doesn’t shoot as many 3-pointers as Grinnell. If the game turns into a blowout, Muhlenberg slows the pace down and takes off the press. Likewise, if the score is close late, the Mules won’t take as many risks.

“It’s a fun way to play, but I don’t want to necessarily give the impression that it’s the best way. I still think if you have better players, you’ll win, but there are a lot of benefits to this system. The kids tell me that the quick subbing makes for a lot less pressure. They don’t have to worry ‘What’s coach going to do if I play badly, yank me?’ That frees them up to play better.”
Muhlenberg’s game planning is completely focused on trying to do what it does best. For now, scouting reports are thrown out the window. Their opponents, totally unaccustomed to the style, have been left wondering what’s coming next.

“In our first scrimmage against another team, we subbed in a new group at 19 minutes, then another one at 18,” Rohn said. “ One of our girls heard someone on the other team say ‘You’ve got to be kidding!”

Some fans may have thought that as well the first time they got a look-see, but not anymore.

“The excitement generated has been tremendous,” Rohn said. “More people have been coming to games because they hear it’s something they have got to see. That makes our kids feel really good.”

Back to their roots 
“We’re trying to put a number on the board that opponents can’t match,” said Redlands men’s basketball coach Gary Smith.

Redlands photo by Rachel Roche
Donald Brady and Daniel Coccia press on the perimeter for Redlands against Pomona-Pitzer.

Sometimes that number is 154, which is just fine, even when your opponent puts up 153, which Chapman did in a triple overtime loss Dec. 5. That set an all-division NCAA record for most points scored in a loss. Another mark fell eight days later when Redlands attempted 97 3-pointers, and beat La Sierra 149-111.

“No, we don’t have to ice our arms much,” said a chuckling Smith, when asked if his shooters’ shoulders get tired. “Our guys aren’t like baseball pitchers.”

Sometimes the number to look at is 12, as in the percentage shot from 3-point land in the first half in a 94-84 loss at previously winless Hope International.

“There are going to be nights like that,” Smith said, knowing such a performance could sag confidence if it happens too frequently, which to this point it hasn’t. “It’s part of playing the system.”

Redlands is in its second season of its second run at the running game. Redlands had played a style similar to Division I Loyola Marymount, at the time when both of those programs had fast-pace style success in the late 80s and early 90s. Redlands established many scoring records since broken by Grinnell. Head coach Gary Smith elected to use more standard halfcourt sets prior to the 1994-95 season, but decided to give it another go when his team struggled for a few seasons.

Last season, Redlands played a style that was a cross between Grinnell and Loyola Marymount, with longer shifts and more one-on-one play offensively. This summer, Smith visited Arseneault at Grinnell, and got help with the fine-tuning. After Redlands won six of its first eight games, averaging 121 points per game, Smith sent Arseneault a crate of navel oranges, a product of the most successful industry in the region, as a thank you.

The numbers tell the story
In its 149-111 win against La Sierra, guard Billy Shivers scored 24 points in just 13 minutes. Point guard Donald Brady had 11 assists in just 14 minutes
In that game, Redlands set an NCAA record with 97 3-point attempts.
Chapman scored 153 points against Redlands and lost, 154-153 in 3OTs.

“The program needed a shot in the arm,” Smith said, explaining why he went back to the running game and why he chose this style. “It’s not an easy adjustment because it’s so unconventional. It’s been an adjustment for the players and for the coaches

The change in what’s needed from each individual has required some getting used to things.

“Understanding roles is very important to us,” Smith said. “Some people are primarily rebounders, some are passers, some are our screeners. Some are our hired guns. They all make the whole thing tick.”

SOUND’S LIKE GRINNELL: We thought we had stumbled upon another Grinnell-style program when we checked out the stats of the Puget Sound men’s basketball team. The Loggers average 108 ppg, play an 11-man rotation, shoot 33 3-pointers per game, and force 25 turnovers. But third-year head coach Eric Bridgeland said his system isn’t as extreme.

“We don’t have a set time in which we try to get a shot off,” said Bridgeland, explaining that the pace isn’t quite as hectic as those of the teams profiled here. “We do press a lot to force turnovers. Most of our baskets are scored off turnovers. We’re not a Grinnell or a Loyola Marymount. I actually don’t think we run enough.”

Puget Sound, which is based in Tacoma, Wash., and plays in the Northwest Conferece, entered the weekend 5-1, including a win over WIAC preseason favorite UW-River Falls. Senior guard Matt Glynn leads the squad in both scoring (20.7ppg) and assists (4.7 apg). The Loggers lack height — the system is built around players between 6-2 and 6-5, and Bridgeland thinks they need to run more, but he has seen enough to know that this could be a very promising season.

“We feel we can dominate with this style,” Bridgeland said. “It’s just a matter of time.”

DREAM JOB: It had been a long time since Dean Meminger had last coached a basketball team and his desire to get back into the game full-time was very strong.

“I needed to coach,” said Meminger, whose last stint prior to being hired as head coach of the Manhattanville men’s team this summer was in 1987 with the Long Island Knights of the USBL. “It’s like Miles Davis not being able to play the trombone.”

That reference dates the 55-year-old Meminger back a little ways. Meminger was an All-American guard at Marquette (nicknamed “The Dream”) who had a successful NBA career and won a championship in 1973 with the New York Knicks as a backup guard to Hall of Famers Walt Frazier and Earl Monroe, and on the same team with Phil Jackson, who coincidentally started his head coaching career replacing Meminger after he was fired by the CBA’s Albany Patroons.

Meminger describes his coaching style as coming from those who coached him- Mike Brown at Rice High in New York City, and coaching legends Al McGuire, Red Holzman, and Cotton Fitzsimmons. He worked as a substance abuse counselor and a consultant to the Hunter College men’s basketball program prior to coming to Manhattanville. His Knicks connections paid off in the form of a recommendation from Monroe.

The Valiants got off to a rough start, losing their first three games to FDU-Florham, Gallaudet, and Hunter (the last two by a combined three points, with top scorer Farrid Johnson out of the lineup), but have won four in a row, including three Skyline Conference games heading into winter break. Some ex-NBA players, such as former Boston Celtic Chris Ford, have bolted quickly, but Meminger says he could easily stay in this job for 10 years should things go well.

“People had told me not to go in with the idea that you’re winning 20 games, but my expectations are high,” Meminger said. “We’re on a nice little run now, but I don’t tell my players that. Our goal is just to win the next game.”

GAME OF THE YEAR? Lincoln Christian, an NCCAA program that hopes to get onto the Division III waiting list, got a taste of college basketball at this level in an amazing contest against Greenville on Dec. 10. Greenville, which rallied from eight points down with two minutes remaining in regulation, prevailed 126-118 in double overtime in a game that took more than three hours to complete. The Preachers shot 71% in the first half and got 45 points from Louisiana Tech transfer Brian Dunaway but came up just short.

“We’ve been playing them for more than 50 years, so it’s quite a rivalry,” said Lincoln Christian head coach and athletic director John Searby. “We looked at a game like this to prove that we could make the transition. We felt a satisfaction that we’re ready for this level.”

The next opening to enter Division III is in the fall of 2006, which would be the beginning of a four-year provisional period.

SUCCESS! Last week we suggested that Moravian should make a copy of the videotape of its women’s basketball free throw shooting record and send it to the Basketball Hall of Fame. We’re pleased to report after a discussion between Moravian SID Mark Fleming and representatives from the Hall, that the museum asked for several pieces of memorabilia, including the game ball, a ticket stub, and that videotape. We’ll let you know when the items are on display.

POLL WATCHERS: Our plan for the rest of the season is to spotlight a team listed near the bottom of the Top 25 poll. If the last few seasons have taught us anything, it’s that a hidden gem can emerge in March as one of the best teams in the country.

This week we take a quick look at the Anderson women, who might have lost the one vote it got in last week’s Top 25 after getting swamped by Heidelberg last week, but this may be a team worth keeping an eye on.

The Ravens (6-2) have one of the nation’s best players in senior forward Angel Hall, who set a school record with 47 points and nine 3-pointers in a win against Adrian last Saturday. Hall was the nation’s top free throw shooter last season (91%) and also ranked in the Top 10 in scoring and 3-pointers made.

“She is an exceptional talent,” said Anderson head coach Marcy Taylor. “Her 3-point shooting expertise is without limits. In the last two years she has been a huge percentage of our offense. We’ve taken a little of the load off her this season with a stronger inside presence.”

Anderson’s best non-conference test was against Hope on Nov. 29, against whom it led by eight points at halftime, but faltered and lost 63-50.

Ryan Scot

Ryan Scott serves as the lead columnist for and previously wrote the Mid-Atlantic Around the Region column in 2015 and 2016. He's a long-time D-III basketball supporter and former player currently residing in Middletown, Del., where he serves as a work-at-home dad, doing freelance writing and editing projects. He has written for multiple publications across a wide spectrum of topics. Ryan is a graduate of Eastern Nazarene College.
Previous columnists:
2014-16: Rob Knox
2010-13: Brian Falzarano
2010: Marcus Fitzsimmons
2008-2010: Evans Clinchy
Before 2008: Mark Simon