Mr. Arsenault’s Wild Ride

Every year when I figure out my winter sports announcing schedule, I highlight one specific date.

That date is today, when Ripon College hosts Grinnell College in men’s basketball. (Which you can watch at 7 Central time online.) The Grinnell–Ripon game is the most exciting, yet most difficult-to-announce, game I do every year, which is why I look forward to it.

If you like basketball on fire, this is what you want to see. The safest bet every season is that Grinnell will finish first in points scored per game, and worst in points allowed per game. This year’s Pioneers are scoring 114.2 points per game and giving up 96.3 points per game. The next closest offense is Ripon, which is scoring 79.4 points per game. The next closest defense is Lawrence, which is giving up 80 points per game. (Grinnell is number one in the Midwest Conference in scoring margin, which is the best indicator other than win–loss record of how good a team is.)

The flood of points and shots isn’t what makes announcing the Pioneers difficult. The pace is frenetic, to say the least — Grinnell shoots as fast as they can, usually either a three-point shot or a layup, and after they score or lose the ball they press and trap their opponent to try to get the ball back. The other adventure for sportscasters and public address announcers is that Grinnell brings in between three and five players every time they substitute, which is once every scoreboard minute or so,  in order to keep up the defensive pressure. (Ripon College’s PA announcer always suggests fans consult their souvenir programs. It’s easier to announce who’s in on TV than trying to do that and keep up with the action on the radio.)

Grinnell is Division III college basketball’s answer to UNLV and Loyola Marymount, two teams that let ‘er rip in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and before that the National Basketball Association of the 1960s and 1970s, when the scoreboard displayed three digits per side every game night. Grinnell has led college basketball — not just Division III, but all of college basketball — in scoring 16 of the past 18 seasons and three-point shooting in 14 of the past 18 seasons. The 2003–04 Pioneers set a record by scoring 126.2 points per game, breaking their own 2001–02 season record of 124.9 points per game. The first seven names in the Midwest Conference single-game scoring record list, the first nine names in the conference single-season scoring list, and the first four names in the career scoring list are Pioneers.

The architect of this chaos is David Arsenault, who has been causing his Midwest Conference coaching brethren fits since 1989. (The first time Ripon played an Arsenault-coached Grinnell team in Iowa, Ripon won 134–131.) For once, the Grinnell College Web page that says that Arsenault “has become nationally and internationally renowned for his innovative coaching techniques and offensive-minded basketball” is not hype:

A by-product of his high-flying, fast-paced basketball has been increased player participation, enthusiastic home crowds and a virtual assault on the offensive records section compiled by the NCAA Statistics Office.

Not to mention on-floor success. Grinnell’s 1996 Midwest Conference title was its first since 1962. (The Pioneers beat Ripon in the conference championship game, with Grinnell’s Ed Brands scoring 60.) Under Arsenault, who was hired to coach a team that had had 25 consecutive losing seasons, Grinnell has won four Midwest Conference regular-season titles and two conference tournament titles. When Grinnell opened its new gymnasium, ESPN televised the game, and Sports Illustrated previewed the game. Grinnell is the only Midwest Conference team that gets national publicity beyond scoreboard sections of newspapers or websites, including USA Today, the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times.

Arsenault described his system thusly to SI: “We’re trying to perfect chaos. 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.” Another way to look at it is to watch how a team down eight points with 90 seconds left plays, and think of playing like that all 40 minutes.

Arsenault must have the easiest time of any Division III basketball coach in recruiting, irrespective of Division III’s lack of athletic scholarships. If a basketball player goes to Grinnell, he’s going to play. There is no alternative. The Pioneers’ leading scorer, Griffin Lentsch, plays just 20.5 minutes per game (yet leads the Midwest Conference in scoring at 26.2 points per game). Twenty-one Pioneers have played this season, and 14 players have played in every game this season. If Division III basketball is about participation, then Grinnell men’s basketball certainly achieves that standard.

And if Division III basketball is about academics over athletics, Grinnell succeeds there too. Grinnell fits no one’s definition of an athletic factory. (The average SAT score of a Grinnell student is 1350.) Arsenault took a sabbatical one season to write The Running Game — A Formula for Success and a video, “Running to Extremes.” He has since produced another video, “Running to Win.” Someone else is selling “The Grinnell System” video package, which is a high compliment indeed.

There is not only a method to this madness, but a statistical method to this madness. Several years ago, Arsenault commissioned some Grinnell students to figure out the statistical measures that predicted Grinnell’s success. Since this formula was discovered, meeting all five criteria has failed to produce a win only once, when Grinnell shot 16 percent from the field that night:

  1. Shoot at least 94 shots per game, which averages to one shot every 12 seconds. (This year, Grinnell is averaging only 85 shots per game.)
  2. Shoot 25 more shots than Grinnell’s opponent. (This year, they’re shooting 22 more shots per game.)
  3. Shoot three-point shots on at least half of their shots. (This season, 61.1 percent of their shots are beyond the three-point arc.)
  4. Generate at least 32 turnovers per game. (Just 28.4 turnovers per game this season. Their turnover ratio is plus 14.)
  5. Get offensive rebounds on at least one-third of Grinnell’s missed shots. (This year, they’re getting offensive rebounds on 40 percent of Grinnell’s missed shots, and the Pioneers lead the conference in offensive rebounds per game.)

The result of this style of play could best be described as feast or famine, over an entire game or season. I’ve seen both Grinnell and Ripon come back from deficits of 20 or more points, and I’ve seen Grinnell and Ripon blow leads of 20 or more points. No lead by Grinnell or its opponent is safe, because the Pioneers never (or at least from what I’ve seen) let up on their style of play. Grinnell has both big wins and big losses (one year I announced a 99–55 Ripon win, and the Pioneers hold the record for points scored in a loss, 157–149 to Illinois College in 1994), and it seems that Grinnell most often finishes near the top or near the bottom of the conference.

I’ve called several Grinnell–Ripon games. The first season I announced Ripon games, I watched the two teams’ game in Ripon (Ripon 143, Grinnell 118) a couple weeks before Ripon’s trip to Grinnell. But watching that kind of game is not the same thing as announcing it. Five minutes into the Ripon-at-Grinnell game, I was running out of gas. (Part of it may have been the fact that Grinnell’s old Darby Gymnasium, described as the Boston Garden of the Midwest Conference, was infernally hot.)

Ripon won 110–107. That night also was the first night of the 1999 NBA season following that year’s lockout. Only one NBA team reached 110 points that night, and none of the games reached 217 combined points.

Since then, Grinnell–Ripon games I’ve announced include 103–100 in 2001, 124–110 in 2006,  120–118 in 2007, 137–129 in 2009, 127–107 in 2010, and 125–113 last season. In one of those games, the halftime score was 74–67. I got the halftime stats from Ripon’s sports information director, looked them over, and started laughing, because the halftime stats had more numbers on them than some games’ final stats.

The reaction of Grinnell’s opponents to the Pioneers’ contrarian style is interesting. I once asked Bob Gillespie, Ripon’s long-time coach, about Grinnell’s style. Gillespie replied that he wouldn’t coach that way, but it worked for Grinnell because they had won conference championships with that approach.

When USA Today did a story about Grinnell basketball last decade, the coach of one of Grinnell’s regular-season opponents called Grinnell’s style a travesty of basketball. (The coach took that comment somewhat back when the New York Times came calling.) The irony of that comment is that that particular opponent played similarly, though not to Grinnell’s extremes — they ran a lot, shot a lot of threes, scored a lot of points and gave up a lot of points. Another former rival said he loved watching Grinnell, but he hated playing Grinnell.

I give Arsenault a lot of credit for being willing to do this. Most team sports appear to have a sort of coaching groupthink, where peer pressure prevents a coach from doing something out of the box, like, say, never punting. (In the NFL, Tuesday Morning Quarterback swears that coaches coach with the goal of reducing the margin of defeat.) Ask yourself how many coaches in any sport would actually say ”We have fun. It’s almost a lost art in sports.” At a bare minimum, it’s highly entertaining to watch, and everybody plays because everybody has to play. One would think the Grinnell system would be quite effective in a college or high school conference known for its half-court slow-tempo style of play. (It would be interesting to take over a moribund high school girls’ basketball program, like this one, and see if this approach would work.)

Most teams, even those that play a deliberate style against anyone else, apply the take-what-the-defense-gives-you (or, in the words of former Iowa football coach Hayden Fry, “scratch where it itches”) approach to Grinnell. If you can get the ball out of the backcourt and their press, you are likely to have a high-percentage shot available for you. And that’s by design — Grinnell is happy to trade your two-point basket for their three-point basket. Ripon once lost to Grinnell despite shooting 67 percent from the field. Most teams therefore don’t shoot many threes against Grinnell unless they’re behind. (It shouldn’t be surprising that in addition to leading the Midwest Conference in points per game, scoring margin, three-point field goals, assists, assist-to-turnover ratio, blocked shots and turnover margin and assist-to-turnover ratio, Grinnell also leads the conference in average game attendance and road game attendance.)

Grinnell started this season with a bang by beating Principia 145–97, a game in which Grinnell deviated from its usual substitution pattern to allow Lentsch to score a Division III record 89 points. (The previous record was set by, of course, a Grinnell alumnus.) The Pioneers won 126–98, 150–137, 117–107, and 115–103. Their only loss was to Carroll 109–106 Jan. 14.

Tonight’s game is a rematch of their Dec. 3 meeting in Grinnell, won by the Pioneers 125–103. It will not only be an entertaining game, but a big game, given that Grinnell is tied for first and Ripon is tied for third in the Midwest Conference. (The team with which Ripon is tied for third, St. Norbert, is Grinnell’s Saturday opponent.) Since only four teams make the Midwest Conference basketball tournaments, a team that wants to have a shot at March basketball needs to finish in the top four, and it’s quite helpful to host the tournament, which the regular-season champion gets to do.

In addition to the conference implications, this should be a good game because Ripon leads the conference in scoring among teams not named Grinnell, and in free throw shooting. Grinnell plays physical defense (to say the least), so shooting 78.1 percent from the line should help the Red Hawks tonight. (Ripon is one of the few basketball teams I’ve seen that succeeds in any tempo of game and doesn’t try to control the pace of the game.)

Arsenault won’t be at the game, though. He’s on sabbatical this semester. (And unless you knew what Arsenault looked like, you wouldn’t recognize him as a coach, given that he usually sits on the far end of the bench and almost never even stands up during play.) His son, also named David, owner of the Division III record for assists in a game (34), is the interim coach this semester. Given Grinnell’s scores in the second semester, the younger Arsenault appears to coach like his father.

So if you’re interested in the most entertaining basketball you’ll see this season, come to the Storzer Center on the (west end of the campus of) Ripon College this evening, or watch us online. (Or if you’re busy Friday night, watch Grinnell at St. Norbert Saturday.) I guarantee you won’t be bored.

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