Grinnell's System here to stay

In Grinnell's System, Julian Marx has attempted 156 three-point shots in 11 games. That's one more than the entire Ramapo team has attempted in 14 games.
Photo by Steve Frommell, 

By Ryan Scott 

“If we can hold an opponent to 100 points, we’ve got a really good chance to win that game.” 

Your average basketball coach can’t make that statement with a straight face, but David Arseneault, Jr, interim head coach at Grinnell College, is not your average head coach.

The Grinnell “System” has been around for 20 years now – we last covered it in Around the Nation in 2003. Sometimes called an oddity or an abomination, the System is increasingly welcome in a basketball landscape more comfortable with analytics-based unorthodoxy. In Division III (and elsewhere) more coaches are finding the System’s fast-paced organized chaos the perfect fit for their programs. 

“I guess I was ahead of my time,” says David Arseneault, Sr., Grinnell head coach and originator of the System, currently on sabbatical. “I just kept with it because it worked. I am glad to see we have the proof now that what we’ve been doing is a smart way to play.” 

George Barber, head coach of the Greenville men’s team, now in their second season running the System, compares it to the colonial fighting tactics of the American Revolution, “It used to be, armies just lined up in a field and shot each other, but we decided we didn’t like that idea and hid behind trees.” In other words, it may not be traditional, but it’s not unfair. 

Opposing coaches often feel differently. “One of the great advantages,” says Rhodes men’s coach, Mike DeGeorge, in his first season running the system, “is that opposing teams have to throw out everything they do in other games and play differently against you.” It’s working well for Rhodes, which started slowly, as many System teams do while they’re getting used to the style themselves, but recently defeated two conference foes by more than 40 points each. 

System teams notoriously have a hard time scheduling non-conference opponents. Andrea Bertini, women’s coach at Westfield State said, “I approached two coaches at a high school game where we were all watching a recruit the other day; they both said ‘no’ before I even finished the question.” Conference foes are less than excited to throw out their typical playing styles twice a year to battle the System. “We had won the sportsmanship award six years in a row,” says Barber, “But we can kiss that goodbye.” 

While there can be a lot of complex offensive and defensive schemes run by System squads, the underlying philosophy is quite simple: maximize possessions. In 1996, two Grinnell math students presented Arseneault with five statistical goals; they said, “If you meet these goals, you’ll win.” Arseneault had been tinkering with an up-tempo offense for several years by this point, but now he had specific goals around which to design his revolutionary style of play. 

System teams approach the five goals in different ways, but they’re all very similar to Arseneault’s originals, which Grinnell still uses today: take 100 shots, make 50 of them 3 point attempts, rebound a third of offensive misses, force 32 turnovers, and take 30 more shots than the opponent. “That’s the System,” says Arseneault, “Any way you choose to achieve those goals is the System.” When teams reach those goals, they can usually count losses on one hand. 

Arseneault breaks down his approach quite simply, “We want our best shooter to get two looks at the basket in twelve seconds and on defense we double team the ball wherever it is.” Usually a full line of five substitutes enters the game every 35-55 seconds to maintain pace of play. Depth is key. Rarely does a System player average more than 20 minutes per game and without a roster at least 15 deep, even the best conditioned athletes won’t hold up over the long haul. The System might give up 100 points in most games, but they always lead the nation in scoring. 

“Over the summer, the NCAA sent us a plaque,” says Barber, “We were the No. 1 scoring offense in all of college basketball. The athletic director put it up in the hallway and kids started going, ‘wow.’ We’re just a no-name school from Illinois that everybody thinks is in South Carolina. We toil in obscurity, so to have recognition like that, the kids really embraced it.” 

If you want more X's and O's, former Redlands coach, Gary Smith, and current North Central women’s assistant, Doug Porter, literally wrote the book: Coaching the System. Also, a former Grinnell player, Ross Preston wrote The Road to 138, that chronicles both the history of the System at Grinnell and the 138 points Grinnell’s Jack Taylor scored in one game in 2012.

The System has moved well beyond Grinnell now – and the record-setting games that have sometimes drawn criticism for Grinnell are more about the Arseneault coaching philosophy than the System itself. “Some coaches like to play the toughest possible schedule. I want our guys to be mentally intact when we get to our conference schedule. If my best scorer is thinking he’s better than he actually is and playing at a higher level than he’s normally capable of, that’s going to give our team the best chance to succeed,” says Arseneault, Jr.
Entering the weekend, Anita Sterling was one of 10 North Central (Ill.) players to attempt at least 40 three-pointers this season and one of 14 Cardinals to play at least 10 minutes per game.
Photo by Steve Woltmann, North Central (Ill.) athletics 

Porter is often credited with translating the System to women’s basketball during his tenure at NAIA Olivet Nazarene, but he credits Bunky Harkleroad, then with Berea, now with Sacramento State, for doing the hard work of transition and helping Porter find his way. Porter was coaxed out of retirement five years ago to help North Central head coach, Michelle Roof, install the System there.
The North Central women’s program, much like Grinnell when Arseneault arrived in the late 1980s, was mired in a long period of futility. Roof says, “The program was down and it’s such a tough conference. We knew that in order to compete with the big dogs, we had to do something different. We needed to build some enthusiasm after struggling for so long."

While Arseneault’s version of the System relies on an offensive scheme designed to clear out one side of the court for open shooters, the women’s version has employed an offense more reliant on spacing and penetration to create deep looks. Bertini, in her second year running the System, says, “There are not as many women who can make a cross-court pass out of a trap, the length and space [women] can cover is different. You have to adjust some things, but the philosophy is the same, though – forcing turnovers and playing fast."

Bertini is also rare, in that she switched to the System with a very successful team – coming off a heartbreaking conference championship game loss, with talent returning, and a stacked freshman class. “I knew I had talent, but we’d been through a few seasons where players were quitting. I think we need to keep women engaged and we need to be prepared for injuries. When you play this style of play, everybody is ready to go and it's exciting.”
It is this desire, for full participation, that birthed the System in the first place. In every situation where it’s been employed, teams have improved their win-loss record. DeGeorge said, “In the past, the System has taken teams near the bottom of their conference and elevated them to near the top. I wanted to see if it could elevate a team near the top to be nationally competitive.”

Rhodes is coming off two SAA championships in the last four years, but DeGeorge sees this move as changing with the times. “We used to be a tight, half-court, defensive team, but now we’re finding most everything we did is a foul. This seems to be the way the game is headed. At every level, basketball seems to be embracing both analytics and the importance of the three point shot. While you might not see the System in the NBA, due to roster size, it’s far less a departure from the norm for a college team to adopt it.

Perhaps the biggest hurdle to System success is how differently a coach must approach the game. “My eyes have never caught up to [the speed],” says Arseneault, the originator, “It’s not until I look at it on film that I can figure out why something was working or why it wasn’t.” Basketball coaches tend to be control freaks, but with the System there is very little they can do in-game, besides trust the training and intelligence of their players. Arseneault again, “I wanted our guys to be free, expressive, and creative. The System gives them that.”

DeGeorge noted that practice is different, too. “You can’t play at the pace we want for more than 35 or 40 seconds without a break. It’s hard to teach the skills we want our players to have in that time. Then, we always have two shifts on offense, but a third has to [stand in for the opponent] and when they do, they’re practicing against the skills we’re trying to teach. You need patience, more patience than I ever expected.”

The other challenge is mindset. Barber brought Smith in from California to help install the System at Greenville. Barber says, “I say ‘Gary, I think I’m getting it, but when do you say you’re trying to win the game? He replied, ‘If you get your numbers, George, you’re going to win 99% of the time.” That’s a scary mindset for coaches, but Porter summed it well, “You think you’re betraying your competitive spirit to say ‘we don’t want to win, just hit our goals,’ but the fact is, if you get better and improve, you will win. You focus on the process and not the product. A great example of someone who believed that was John Wooden – he taught that you just play the best you can. There’s no correlation between emphasizing winning and getting the job done – it’s not wanting-to that causes you to win.”

Kenny Greene and the Greenville Panthers lead Division III with 132.9 points per game and have scored 140 or more points five times.
Greenville athletics photo 

While most System teams, just installing the foundation and getting everybody on board is a herculean task, but for a seasoned System team, like Grinnell, the next step is figuring out where to go from here. Arseneault, Jr, who expects to apply – and is certainly the odds-on favorite – to replace his father when he steps down after next season, spent the last two years as head coach of the Sacramento Kings’ D-League team in Reno. He’s brought back some NBA perspectives on attack angles and offensive spacing to help try to take Grinnell to the next level.

He was also able to gain some insight into one of the most interesting questions surrounding the System: could this work at the highest levels of basketball.

“I thought we’d have trouble turning people over, because of improved ball handling and athleticism, but that was not the case. We got turnovers, but our problem was that our guys got too worn out due to the roster size. I had ten guys most of the time.”

Most coaches agree that Division III is the perfect setting for the System because players are really just playing for love of the game; there’s no sense of entitlement. The intensity and commitment needed to be successful on both sides of the floor is not something you can expect from players who are used to being stars.

Porter said, “The UConn women would still win the national championship with the System – any system – because they have the best players.” In the end, coaches were pretty unified that talent is talent however it’s managed. Arseneault, Sr. said, “I always wondered what this System might do with fifteen really talented guys, but then I wonder if 15 really talented guys could sacrifice their egos enough to play the System well."

Every coach has a different perspective and different emphases when it comes to running the System on the floor, but every coach responded the same when asked what the biggest benefit is: “It’s just so fun,” says Barber, “Everybody’s having fun.”
When the System is really working, the home atmosphere is electric. Players aren’t worried about making mistakes, because there’s not enough time to notice them, let alone dwell on them. Even if you come out of the game, you only get a minute to catch your breath and then you’re right back in again.

Barber mentioned that it’s really like playing two games in one. All the stats end up being doubled, because a System team plays so fast. A 70 point half is sometimes par for the course. It also means more fouls, and System teams sometimes get criticized for using pace to mask rough play. Roof, from North Central, responds, “[The System] puts a lot of pressure on referees. Most teams only defend 20 feet. When you have five people defending 100 feet, there is going to be more contact and more fouls."

While fans usually end up loving the experience, it takes a while to adjust, even to watching. Bertini mentioned some fan criticism early on, but winning a conference championship the first year sure helped the Westfield State crowd get on board. North Central used the System to make their first-ever conference tournament. Grinnell has played in the NCAAs twice. The Olivet Nazarene women were ranked No. 1 in NAIA D-II last season and made it to the Elite Eight.

Success is certainly possible, but it’s not entirely the point of the System. Have fun, get everyone involved; win some games. “I have a tough time understanding why more people haven’t done it,” says Arseneault Sr., “Seriously. Teams consistently playing below .500, have to start thinking outside the box, for ways to make their programs a place kids really want to be."

With teams such as Golden State and Houston in the NBA willing to experiment with non-traditional approaches and finding success, it will only become easier for programs across all divisions to embrace the System. Grinnell and Arseneault may have been well ahead of their time running this offense in 1996, but everyone else is catching up quickly. Things will only get more interesting as more teams experiment, evolve, and explore the System’s possibilities and game of basketball itself. Who knows, the System make look totally different when we cover it again in another 13 years.

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