by Michael Bradley / @DailyHombre
You’re tired. And you’re pissed. It doesn’t matter that you average 8 points a game, and tonight you have 22. This isn’t basketball. It’s some sort of athletic sideshow that has you and your teammates down 30 to a bunch of guys who’d have no chance of beating you if not for the crazy style they play. Pressing with four guys in the frontcourt. Surrendering layups just to get the ball back. Hoisting up threes from everywhere, all the time. Waves of substitutes. No wonder the other coach doesn’t have any friends in the business. You hate this. Feed a bunch of first-graders 5-Hour ENERGY, let them loose in a Toys ’R’ Us, and it’s more orderly than this.
If you’re a Grinnell (IA) College player, you might hear that from another victim, who’s praying for the end, holding on to the ends of his game shorts just to avoid tipping over in front of the delirious student section that is screaming for another turnover and three more points. Fact is, Grinnell’s system does suck—if you’re trying to stop it. It never relents, because that’s how they play. There’s no sitting on leads or playing it safe on the comeback. Just tear ass, baby, and if you ever reach 200, close everything down, because perfection will be yours. Until then, get cranking, because those five fellas at the scorer’s table can’t wait to get in on the fun. And there are five more behind them. So, wait, are all 15 playing at once? Seems like it sometimes.
Before November 20, 2012, you probably never heard of Grinnell, the small private college in central Iowa. Then Jack Taylor dropped 138 points on Faith Baptist, and all of a sudden, every national media outlet in the land was looking for an audience with Taylor and his freewheeling coach. “We got a ton of positive press,” says David N. Arseneault, associate head coach, son of the head coach and former Grinnell point guard. “For the next couple days, you could go into the gym and hear, ‘ESPN is going to come and shoot footage of practice.’ The players were so fired up.”
Grinnell plays basketball like a souped-up car on NOS with the throttle full open out of desperation. Twenty years ago, head coach David Arseneault’s teams weren’t winning, and he was going to get fired if he didn’t do something that would at least create interest, if not pile up the wins. Turns out, Arseneault’s creation did both. Grinnell wins enough to keep the bosses happy and scores so much that it has spawned disciples nationwide who have decided it’s right and proper to press-and-bomb-away. “He doesn’t go out and sell it, but he’ll always respond to people’s requests for information,” Arseneault the younger says of his father. “The majority of the e-mails he gets are from other coaches requesting information.”
Some other people would like to strangle Arseneault. Playing Grinnell interrupts everything a team is trying to do, because nobody else plays like the Pioneers. Some teams don’t even gameplan. They figure the whole thing is a joke, so why regard it with the same level of seriousness that should be devoted to a real game. That’s if anybody even plays the Pioneers. Midwest Conference opponents have to do it—like kids forced to eat their vegetables. But non-league foes are hard to find.
Can you blame them? You have to watch this to understand how ridiculous it can get. Imagine the most out-of-control pickup game you have ever encountered and stretch it over 40 minutes. There can’t be any “garbage time” when Grinnell plays, because every minute looks that way. Uncontested layups at one end. Pull-up treys off the fastbreak at others. Defensive chaos. A basketball purist might well run screaming into the night after watching just five minutes of the Grinnell Experience.
“A lot of people say it’s a gimmick,” junior forward Aaron Levin says. “We’re not playing traditional defense, and we’re shooting a lot of threes. But it’s real basketball. There’s not one right way to play basketball.”
This “way” involves a set of absolutes that Arseneault has developed to create maximum mayhem: Grinnell teams are expected to take at least 94 shots a game, with half coming from three-point range, and outgun rivals by a minimum of 25 tries a night. They try to create 32 turnovers each time out and want to get an offensive board on a third of their shot attempts. Grinnell substitutes in waves of five, every two minutes if possible. That way, nobody gets tired—except the opponents. “Some teams try to press and run with us, and then it’s a track meet,” says senior guard Griffin Lentsch, who averaged 19.3 ppg in a team-leading 19.4 mpg duing the Pioneers recently completed 17-6 campaign (average score: 112-96). “That’s the goal, to get the pace as fast as possible and get both teams shooting after 10 seconds of the shot clock.”
When Grinnell is “swooping,” the treys are raining down like hail, the press is piling up takeaways and Arseneault sits quietly at the end of the bench to marvel at his creation. He doesn’t care about the score; he cares about the process. If it’s working, that’s all that matters. “All I can say is that my guys are having fun,” says the elder Arseneault. “They come back for alumni games and contribute to the college. We are who we are. We’ve won a few conference championships, and we are having fun. If that’s a bad thing, I don’t understand it.”
The letter came from a middle school girls basketball coach in Odessa, TX. She was writing in response to Taylor’s 138-point detonation, and she wasn’t happy. “She called me ‘pure evil,’” the head coach recalls.
Taylor’s record-setting performance, which came in a 179-104 disemboweling of tiny, 330-student Faith Baptist Bible College, brought the national eye to Grinnell. Media members have made their way to the liberal arts bastion before, mostly to provide slice-of-life glimpses of Arseneault’s strange ways. The college is part of a town that calls itself the “Jewel of the Prairie” and which Budget Travel once voted the “third coolest small town” in America. Adventurous souls may want to hit up Lonnski’s Pub & Deli on Main Street to get a Jack Taylor Burger for the 1957 price of $1.38, as in 138 points. “It’s red-hot and spicy,” Arseneault says.
Taylor’s triple-figure night came in the Pioneers’ third game of the season and rankled more people than just the letter-writer from Odessa. Although Arseneault’s manifesto emphasizes the need to shuttle players in and out of games at a high rate in order to maximize freshness, Taylor played 36 minutes that night and took an NCAA-record 108 shots (including a record 71 from behind the arc), while the other Grinnell players launched 28 combined. For a team that emphasizes its egalitarian obedience to a system, this was an anomaly. Taylor had 58 at the half, and the decision was made to let him take aim at the D-III record (89) and then go for the grail, the 113 Bevo Francis scored in 1954.
“We’ve taken some heat about it being a very selfish performance,” David N. Arseneault says. “I look at it as the reverse. Everyone on the roster was committed to getting shots for Jack. It was the ultimate team performance. At halftime, we saw the points Jack had… It was clear everyone was thinking about the record. There was a commitment by everyone to get him shots.”
Taylor knocked down six straight three-pointers during a 150-second burst over the last four minutes of the game, when there were no stoppages, and clearly he wasn’t coming out, anyway. Taylor, who transferred to Grinnell from Wisconsin-La Crosse, was a bit surprised the Faith Baptist players didn’t rough him up a little as he continued to score. He was also shocked that he had so much success after shooting a mere 25 percent from the field in the first two contests.
“I just wanted to get my confidence up and help our group,” says Taylor, who averaged 36.3 ppg in 12 games before a wrist injury ended his season. “In our group, I take most of the shots.”
That’s how it works at Grinnell. “The shooters shoot, the screeners screen and the passers pass,” says Arseneault. And since there is so much substituting, many players hit the court, whether it’s a blowout victory or a tight conference game, like the February 10 affair against St. Norbert, when 12 Pioneers notched double-figure minutes in a 104-99 overtime win. The waves of reinforcements are what usually overcome the opposition, even if rivals decide to hold the ball or run a modified four-corner stall that drains the shot clock. But some think they can hang with the Pioneers in the sprint-relay style. Suckers.
“Those are the games we love to see, because they’re not going to match us,” Levin says. “Sometimes, you’ll stand next to an opponent during a foul shot, and he’ll say, ‘God, we’re tired.’”
Even the refs get winded trying to keep up. “In one game, there was a timeout early on, and the ref could barely signal it,” Levin says.
Like many of the Pioneers, Levin knew nothing about Grinnell and the system while he was in high school. After an AAU tournament, he got a call from Arseneault and liked what the coach was selling.
Since Arseneault has done this for two decades, he is completely at ease with it and resigned to the fact that other coaches aren’t going to be calling him up for golf dates. “Other coaches treat me coolly,” he says. “There’s one coach in the conference with whom I occasionally chat in the off-season. I understand. They wouldn’t play us if they didn’t have to. It’s a necessary evil. They just want to get through it. It’s not comfortable.”
Arseneault isn’t hanging with the other coaches, and even his own players are scared of him. “He absolutely commands respect,” his son says. “He’s 6-3, 225 pounds, and he looks kind of mean—meaner than he is.”
How mean? Well, when his daughter Jennie was in high school, no one would ask her out, because he intimidated her classmates. “And she’s a good-looking kid,” Arseneault says. “She had to get out of town to get married.”
Meanwhile, Grinnell is going to keep doing what it does, piling up the points, making everybody mad and having a blast the whole time. So what if you don’t like it. Man up.
And try to keep up.