Northwest Conference lives on the run

More news about: George Fox | Linfield | Pacific | Whitman | Whitworth
Marcus Wallace leads Pacific in scoring, which is a tall order, considering the Boxers averaged 105.3 points per game coming into the weekend.
Pacific athletics photo

By Ryan Scott

Don’t look now, but they’re scoring a lot of points in Oregon and Washington. Five Northwest Conference men’s teams are in the Top 12 nationally in scoring offense. While Division III and basketball in general is moving towards a faster pace, the NWC seems to be leading the way.

This modern explosion might be traced to Eric Bridgeland, currently the coach at Whitman, but previously at Puget Sound, where the speed and intensity we’ve come to associate with the Blues first made a splash on the national scene with an Elite 8 trip in 2006. Bridgeland dates it even earlier, with a confluence of unlikely events.

Putting up a pile of points

The top teams in the Northwest Conference in scoring in men's basketball are among the nation's leaders as well. 

Team Points/game National rank
Pacific 105.3 3
Whitman 105.1 4
Whitworth 95.3 6
George Fox 93.2 11
Linfield 92.2 12
Through Jan. 10, 2019

“My first head coaching job was at UC Santa Cruz and I inherited a schedule where we went out to Augustana. We walked in there, the Fighting Banana Slugs, we had seven guys who’d never seen a weight room, the bodies [our opponents] put on the floor were silly. It’s always stuck in my mind that there’s no way we’re going to walk the ball up the floor and win a national championship. You have to do something to give yourself an edge.”

Bridgeland’s system is a bit chaotic, but it’s also a lot of fun. Players are encouraged to run, take chances, and move the ball quickly. The more shots that go up, the more chances to win. He doesn’t speak the language of analytics as naturally as some other coaches, but he’s well aware of how the numbers play out.

“Kids want to run; they want to get up and down. No one’s ever wanted to get into a defensive stance. It kind of all makes sense? You play more bodies and it’s a happier team. It makes for a better experience all around.”

When Bridgeland moved from Puget Sound to Whitman, one of his assistants, Justin Lunt took over. He moved within the NWC to Pacific this year, but last year decided to take the speed to another level, implementing the (in)famous Grinnell System, specifically the highly analytical version developed by Mike DeGeorge at Rhodes.

“It’s always been in my DNA; I’ve always wanted to play fast,” says Lunt, “We saw how well Rhodes played Whitman in the [NCAA] Tournament it gave us an opportunity to play this way consistently,” says Lunt.

At Pacific, Lunt has brought on Matt Petersen, formerly an assistant at Rhodes, to help implement the unique approach for the second year in a row.

“At Puget Sound, we were already using a lot of the principles of the System, so it caught on pretty quick with the guys there. This is all brand new at Pacific, so it’s taking a bit more time.”

Despite the gaudy offensive numbers, the System is much more about defensive philosophy: working for steals instead of stops, which plays into what’s become the NWC style of rapid ball movement and lots of passing. “Some teams will pick you up full court, but there’s typically a focus on the half-court; the biggest difference has been the emphasis we put on the press in the back court,” adds Lunt, who’s hopeful the System will allow his guys to get in front of some of those passes and create easy scoring opportunities.

Now charged with toning down some of the System tendencies Lunt left behind at Puget Sound is Aubrey Shelton, who played at UPS when both Bridgeland and Lunt were coaches. “My high school coach was all about defense; we never even worked on offense. In college, I played for Coach Bridgeland here and we’re going to press and score. I’m trying to take the best of both,” says Shelton. There’s a learning curve the other way for a squad of players used to giving up layups for increased possessions. “We don’t have to spend a lot of [practice time] on offense,” says Shelton,” They’ve got that down, but we’re trying to rein in the defense a bit.”

Puget Sound is succeeding on that front to some extent; the Loggers come in sixth in scoring offense in the conference and about 40th nationwide. A mediocre scoring offense in the NWC is still top 10% in Division III.

Not even in the top five in scoring in the conference, Puget Sound averages 85.6 points, good enough for 42nd in Division III.
Puget Sound athletics photo

This trend goes well beyond the Bridgeland coaching tree, of course, it’s part of a movement across all levels of basketball. “Right now, it’s all about the Warriors,” says Shelton. “Our players grow up watching that and it’s what they emulate.”

Why the trend is so pronounced in the Pacific Northwest, though, is anyone’s guess.

“There are some good bigs in our league,” says Shelton, “But most teams are very guard oriented; we don’t have a lot of guys to protect the rim. That opens things up a lot offensively.” Some coaches noted the Pacific Northwest is not typically deep in talented post players, with most going to scholarship programs in the area. A fast-paced, guard oriented offense is much more conducive to the talent on the roster.

That’s certain true at Linfield, where they’ve surprised a lot of teams with a fast-paced, high-scoring offense that’s setting them up to play spoiler in the NWC and perhaps force the men’s basketball committee to send one of three tournament teams to another location.

“I’ve never been a systematic guy,” says Linfield coach Shanan Rosenberg. “I’ve always tried to shape my offense to fit our personnel. We haven’t played this way the last two years because it wouldn’t have given us the best chance to win. This year’s team is a function of a personnel shift that allows us to be consistently successful.”

“You always know which school will push the pace and run, but this year Linfield was a bit of a surprise,” says Lunt. “They brought in some good transfers, who can really shoot and really score.” Many coaches cite Linfield as evidence of overall improvement in the conference, agreeing with what Whitworth coach, Matt Logie noted: “This might be the first season in my time here where you could make a strong case for having three NCAA Tournament teams.”

Whitworth, a perennial power, is also running a bit more than in past years. “We’ve always focused on offensive efficiency,” says Logie, “But it was always efficiency at a moderate pace. You have to take advantage of opportunities when they present themselves, so this year, in particular, that means a lot more tempo and pace.

“It’s really in response to some of the defensive styles that we face in the conference.”

When there are four or five conference opponents really running and pushing pace, it’s difficult for a team to slow down and win consistently (unless maybe you’re Stevens Point); it’s just not a viable long-term strategy.

It’s also not where basketball is going. David Arseneault might not have been using complex numbers when he developed the System at Grinnell all those years ago, but the numbers have borne out the value of 3-point baskets, offensive rebounding, and turnovers. Defense has become less about preventing the other team from scoring than about getting the ball back – maximizing possessions; offense then becomes being as efficient as possible with those possessions – taking high percentage and high value shots.

“We really focus on points per possession,” says Shelton about the stat that’s become the gold standard for coaches everywhere. “Our goal is to score over 1.1 point per possession and we’ve done that almost every game. If we get over 1.2, we’re probably going to win.”

In a basketball world so prescribed and analyzed, there’s a real premium on intelligence and decision-making. Guys need to make the right passes and the right time and be careful with shot selection. This can be a double edged sword.

“There’s no question the talent in our league is much improved; we’re recruiting better,” says George Fox coach Maco Hamilton. “Teams are so deep and so talented; it makes sense that scoring is up just from that standpoint.” Each NWC institution provides a strong academic environment and players seem to be more aware today that they don’t have to sacrifice academic success to live their college basketball dreams.

George Fox averages 93.2 points per game, after a 122-point outing against Pacific on Jan 5.
George Fox athletics photo

Smart, ambitious student-athletes also bring a host of other challenges. Hamilton, is in his sixth season at GFU, after a highly successful high school coaching career, “The biggest difference is that in high school it’s just basketball. They will run through a brick wall for you, no questions asked. In college they’re a little more seasoned; they’ve had other experiences. There’s more of a process to get kids to buy in – you have to be detail oriented and know why you’re doing what you’re doing. You have to be able to teach it and explain it really well.”

None of the coaches would feed the regional stereotype of quirky non-conformity that us outsiders often have of Portland and Seattle, but they did speak to an easy willingness to experiment. Says Logie, “Justin Lunt had a lot of success at UPS in a variety of styles, then decided to implement the Grinnell System. It’s reflective of his ability and willingness to make changes to the program. You see that across the conference.”

It’s not strictly a Northwest Conference phenomenon. Loras and Nebraska Wesleyan in the ARC as well as numerous smaller schools across New England, looking to compete with traditional powers, are looking to pace and scoring as a leveling factor.

Having five teams at the top of the national scoring offense chart may not be something the NWC can do for long, but whatever comes next, it’s not a bad bet to think you’ll see it first in the Pacific Northwest.

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.
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2014-16: Rob Knox
2010-13: Brian Falzarano
2010: Marcus Fitzsimmons
2008-2010: Evans Clinchy
Before 2008: Mark Simon