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Grinnell and bear it

ESPN to give spotlight to high-flying Division III team

Posted: Monday January 31, 2005 11:50AM; Updated: Monday January 31, 2005 11:50AM
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Matt Brown
Senior guard Matt Brown averages 12.1 points in 16.8 minutes per game.
Grinnell College

Let's see, which games will I make a point of watching this week?

Duke-Wake Forest? Probably. Illinois-Michigan State? Most likely.

Grinnell-Beloit? You better believe it.

For two hours Thursday night, ESPN2 will cede its normally ACC/Big East/Conference USA-dominated airwaves to two sub-.500 Division-III teams. I don't know about you, but I've never seen a team take 60 3-pointers in a game or score 140 points. From what I've heard, Grinnell does these things regularly.

For the past 12 years, the Pioneers have been running a frantic, one-of-a-kind system that's been described as "hockey on hardwood," like "five mice being let out of a shoebox." An invention that's been alternately labeled "one of the finest innovations ever in college basketball" and "a mockery of the game."

Think late-'80s Loyola-Marymount -- only faster.

"We're trying to perfect chaos," said Grinnell coach David Arsenault. "Most basketball today, especially at the professional level, has a lot of dead time. We send a new group of five out there every 35 seconds to run around and create as much disturbance as they can."

You read that right. Like a hockey team, Grinnell substitutes a new "line" at the first dead ball opportunity every 35 seconds, using as many as 17 different players in a game. Once out there, the fresh-legged Pioneers race up the floor on offense, full-court press on defense and shoot 3-pointers -- lots of 3-pointers. Their goals in every game are to take 100 shots -- at least half of which should be treys -- take at least 30 more shots than their opponent, rebound at least one third of its misses and force at least 32 turnovers. If they can't force a turnover, they often willingly cede a lay-up on the premise they'll make up the two points on the other end by hitting 3s. There is no such thing as a bad shot, and a player whose shot isn't falling is encouraged to keep shooting.

Unlike the restless balls of fire normally seen roaming the sidelines, viewers will find Arsenault sitting quietly at the end of the bench nearest the basket. "I mostly sit, drink water and talk to the fans," he said. "I'm basically an overpaid employee of the university."

Point Break
NCAA Division III records set by Grinnell under coach David Arsenault
Points per game in a season 126.2* 2003-04
Cons. games with 100 pts. 28* 2002-03
FG attempts in a game 135 11/25/95
3-ptrs. made in a game 32 12/3/97
3-pt. attempts in a game 86 12/7/99
Points by a losing team 149 2/18/94
* -- all-divisions record

On the contrary, Arsenault has been worth every penny what with the wealth of publicity he's brought this 1,400-student liberal arts school 50 miles east of Des Moines (his program has been profiled in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times and elsewhere). At its peak, Loyola Marymount's famous Hank Gathers-Bo Kimble teams averaged 23 attempts per game from beyond the arc. Grinnell averages nearly 60. As a result, Arsenault's teams have led all NCAA divisions in scoring for 11-straight seasons, breaking their own record last year at 126.2 points per contest. (On the downside, they usually allow more points than any team in the country as well.) University of the Redlands in California, which adopted Arsenault's system two years ago, now holds many of the 3-point records.

After viewing an amateur-shot tape of one of Grinnell's games from last season, Burke Magnus, ESPN's college basketball programming chief, decided showing a Pioneers game would make for a worthy experiment. "It's such a curiosity, we decided to take a fly on it," he said. No one knows for certain, but it's believed this will be the first nationally televised regular season D-III game.

While grateful for the exposure, Arsenault, who has won three Midwest Conference titles in the past eight years, wishes the network had come calling a year earlier. Having lost five key seniors from last year's 18-6 team, this year's Pioneers have struggled to a 4-13 record, averaging a mere (by their standards) 110.9 points per game, and while they're launching just as many treys as always, they're making just 28 percent of them.

Arsenault is quick to point out, though, that his system was actually designed with seasons like this in mind.

When the Boston native took over in 1989, Grinnell, whose lofty academic standards (incoming freshman average a 1,350 SAT score) limit the quality of players it can attract, was coming off its 25th straight losing season. Wanting to try something that would help level the playing field while making basketball more fun for his players (none of whom are on scholarship), Arsenault tinkered for several seasons with a system whose main tenet is something rarely seen in sports beyond the grade-school level: Getting everyone in the game.

"The reason we went with this system in the first place was not necessarily to compete for championships, it was to maximize participation and give more kids a reason to play," said Arsenault, who has never cut a player. "More than anything else, I'm hoping the viewers we get [Thursday night] will see that my players are having a good time. They really appreciate college athletics and the chance to play."

While Grinnell's system has drawn interest from hundreds of high school and college coaches around the country (Arsenault estimates he spends a third of his time responding to colleagues' e-mails and phone calls), there are plenty of others who dismiss it as a small-time gimmick. They accuse Arsenault of bastardizing many of the game's most basic fundamentals and suggest that players of a more skilled level would never buy into it.

Arsenault counters that the system promotes development of specialized skills (some players are responsible for ball-handling duties, others shooting, others rebounding), and that there's no telling what a team with better athletes might be able to accomplish in the system.

"We've been successful at our level basically with smoke and mirrors," he said, "If I was given the freedom to work with the best-penetrating point guards, the best rebounders, the best defenders, there's no doubt in my mind this would win a championship at a higher level."

Suffice to say, there will be no shortage of curiosity seekers tuning in to judge for themselves, this writer included. Said Arsenault: "I just hope we don't lay an egg."

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