Basketball on fast forward

The Washington Post heads to high school:

The 99th free throw of the game clanged off the rim and was rebounded by the opponent. It was then passed ahead to midcourt, where an outlet man, the team’s point guard, was waiting.

Before he could turn his eyes upcourt, he was swarmed by a pair of Lake Braddock players, jostling him with a fervent trap. Panicked, the guard threw a pass to no one, and the ball bounced into the bleachers as the home crowd groaned at the sight of another turnover.

Most eyes in the gym turned toward the scoreboard, which told the crowd that this bizarre, hellish high school basketball game was almost over. There were 8.7 seconds remaining, and Lake Braddock led West Springfield, 122-81.

After the game, Bruins Coach Brian Metress said the 122 points were a team record, the latest sign that the basketball experiment being conducted at Lake Braddock was working.

“We just said we’re going to press and run, and we’re going to press and run like nobody ever has before,” Metress said. “When you come to watch us, it’s like the circus is in town. It’s a totally different game.”

For the past two years, Metress’s team has played an up-tempo, chaotic style that has been broached only by a few bold coaches across all levels. They press constantly, make or miss. They shoot three-pointers at an unprecedented, reckless pace. They sub out four or five players at a time, every minute or two.

To give themselves a chance to win, the Bruins elected to turn basketball on its head. And with the team sporting a 19-3 record heading into the start of postseason play Wednesday, it’s becoming clear that the system has worked.

Standard basketball was abandoned about two years ago when Lake Braddock began the 2016-17 campaign with a 1-4 record. Metress and his staff decided they were tired of losing games in the 40s and 50s. They thought: What if we just decided to score as many points as possible? If we’re going to lose, let’s lose in a shootout.

So the team threw out all of its strategy midway through the season, and developed the tenets of a new style before a Christmas tournament. The Bruins would pick up their opponents with a full-court press on every possession, make or miss. They would swarm the ballhandler at every opportunity, looking to force turnovers and get quick baskets. They would shoot without pause, firing three-pointers from all over the court and never waiting for the perfect look at the basket. They would sub out players constantly to keep them fresh. And they would run. A lot.

“We wanted to approach a game so that [the opponent] has never practiced or prepared for it and they’ve never been in a game like that before,” Metress said. “We just took it to the utmost extreme.”

When it works, the system is freewheeling and fun. It opens up the game so playmakers like guard Quentin James can get easy looks at the basket. The senior has flourished under this style. Last month, he became the school’s all-time scoring leader, passing former North Carolina star and NBA player Hubert Davis.

“We’ve never really had a problem with anyone buying into this system,” James said. “Because the fact that everyone has the green light, what high school are you going to go to where everyone is allowed to shoot the ball without consequences?”

But Metress and his players are the first to admit that, when the system doesn’t work, it’s ugly. In one loss last year, the team shot 6 for 68 from three-point range. Even when the Bruins do win, the up-tempo style is not always aesthetically pleasing. It produces a lot of turnovers and fouls, hence the 99 combined free throws in the win over West Springfield. Opponents and their fans often grow frustrated at the Bruins, as games run long and leads are toppled in seconds.

The system has faltered less and less this year. After mixed results the previous two seasons, the Bruins have wreaked havoc on the rest of Northern Virginia. They have topped 100 points seven times, and all of their final scores are considerably higher than the area’s average. As a rule, they never switch out of their style and they never adapt to an opponent. If a team wants to beat Lake Braddock, it must run, too.

Lake Braddock’s coaching staff wasn’t the first with such a system. Basketball teams are scattered across all levels with a similar style, frustrating opponents with a relentless press and constant threes.

In the early 1990s, David Arseneault Sr. installed a similar system at Grinnell College, a small Division III school in rural Iowa. The Pioneers had gone 25 years without a winning season, and Arseneault needed a remedy. So they started pressing constantly. They shot threes from all over the floor. They subbed more like a hockey team than a basketball team. And they have been running some form of that system since. Arseneault’s son, David Jr., now coaches the team.

“The best way to describe how we play is if you were to imagine a game in which a team is down by eight to 10 points with a minute and a half left. And then take away the intentional fouling,” Arseneault Jr. said.

The “Grinnell System,” as it’s called, has become the face of a growing movement of teams looking to speed the game up, force a lot of turnovers and score a lot of points. Arseneault Jr. said he has heard about “countless” high school teams that run something similar, and there are a few college teams that do the same. Just last month, D-III Greenville (Ill.) beat Fontbonne (Mo.), 200-146, with a similar style. The Panthers attempted 91 threes.

Did someone say Grinnell?

“I think basketball is definitely moving in that direction, from a pace standpoint and from a three-point shooting standpoint,” Arseneault Jr. said. “I don’t even think we’ve reached the tipping point yet. I would actually like to see my team taking more threes.”

Before taking the head coaching job at Grinnell, Arseneault Jr. spent time as an assistant under his dad and then served two years as coach of the Reno Bighorns, the Sacramento Kings’ G League affiliate. The Kings appreciated Arseneault’s love of analytics and had an interest in him running a modified form of the Grinnell system. For each of the two seasons Arseneault Jr. spent in Reno, the Bighorns led the G League in scoring.

While no NBA team has taken their game to the extremes of Grinnell or Lake Braddock, Metress said that the fun, fast, three-point-heavy style that has been popularized by the Golden State Warriors has made it easier to sell his vision to his players.

“When most high school coaches tell you to look at a basketball game, they say don’t watch the NBA because that’s not relevant to how we play,” James said. “But the fact that I can turn on a Warriors game or someone in the NBA and see them running the same stuff we do in our system is pretty cool to watch.”

A little more than two years after Brian Metress sat his team down and told them the Bruins would be trying something new, Langley Coach Scott Newman had a similar talk with his squad. The Saxons had started the season 2-11. After a 40-24 loss to Yorktown, Newman knew it was time for a change.

“We just couldn’t score the ball,” Newman said. “And we had kids that were athletic and could run and would benefit from going fast, playing hard and thinking less.”

So Newman quickly installed a system similar to Lake Braddock’s: a constant press, a quick trigger, a big rotation of players. Like the Bruins and Pioneers, he needed something that could help his team survive. This style of basketball, while shunned by purists, could be a potential equalizer.

“I don’t think I would have ever had the guts to do this if I felt like we had something to lose,” Newman said. “[This type of system] will take people that are willing to take a leap of faith.”

When asked about the benefits of his new style, Newman pointed to the same things that Metress and Arseneault Jr. did: It gets more players involved, and they seemed to be having more fun.

“Every once in a while you get somebody who says it’s not real basketball,” Arseneault Jr. said. “Which is fine. I understand some people have the ideal way they think the game should be played. But I think there are so many different ways to play the game. And that’s what makes the sport so special. You can have fun with it.”

The young Saxons are still adjusting to the new style, but have gone 3-5 since making the switch. Newman said he has heard from more fans and parents saying the team is fun to watch. There is optimism around the program and its future. Originally, the coach assumed they would make a return to normalcy next year, when the team would be older and more talented. But now he is having second thoughts.

“The kids are having so much fun playing this way,” he said. “It seems a little hard to believe that we’re going to go back to the way we used to play.”

As you know, I have announced several Grinnell–Ripon College games over the years. They are a blast to watch. They are … not a nightmare to announce, but those games take a lot of work, to the point where you’re saying, “Five more on the floor,” when the next wave of Pioneers comes in. Up-tempo games are more difficult to announce because everything’s faster than when a pair of half-court teams lay. It’s easier on TV, where you can get away with just saying the players’ names.

Grinnell figured out a mathematical measure for how they need to play besides the scoreboard. The senior Arsenault had a group of math students analyze their games and came up with this formula for success, which failed to produce a win only once (due to 16-percent field goal shooting, and if you’re shooting 16 percent, you’re not going to win regardless of system):

  1. Shoot at least 94 shots per game, which averages to one shot every 12 seconds.
  2. Shoot 25 more shots than Grinnell’s opponent.
  3. Shoot three-point shots on at least half of their shots.
  4. Generate at least 32 turnovers per game.
  5. Get offensive rebounds on at least one-third of Grinnell’s missed shots.

I imagine high school teams could reduce points 1, 2 and 5 by 10 to 20 percent (whether 18-minute halves, like Wisconsin, or eight-minute quarters, like other states) to come up with the correct numbers for themselves.

Irrespective of the big question of whether you have enough shooters to play this style, Wisconsin’s 18-minute halves would seem well suited for this. One reason Wisconsin went to halves was to make teams play more offense to prevent lengthy stalling attempts by teams at the ends of quarters. (See Bennett, Dick.)

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