The greatest college hoops show on earth isn't in Cameron Indoor Stadium with the Crazies, and it isn't in Maples Pavilion with the Sixth Man Club. It's in a little, snowbound wooden gym called Darby on the campus of Division III Grinnell College in Iowa.
You think you know D3 ball. You think it's all discipline and fundamentals, old-fashioned tactics and throwback coaches. You better think again ... about something like this.
On a Friday night in late January, Grinnell is up 12 on visiting Beloit College with 1:22 on the clock. The Pioneers inbound off a Beloit bucket and rush the ball up the floor. Ten seconds later, Steve Wood rolls off a high pick, stops two feet outside the arc and pops a three. Up 15. Grinnell's student section, the Scarlet Sea, shouts in unison, "Aaaallllll night!" Now the press is on, traps closing in on every Beloit ballhandler. Eleven seconds later, they force a turnover. Wood takes the quick outlet and drives the hole for two more. The Sea screams "We've got Wood! We've got Wood!" Up 17 with 58 seconds left. Five new players hit the floor and put the press on again. Another Beloit turnover. Nate Wineinger kicks it to Steve Nordlund for a rapid release three that rims in and out. Beloit heads the other way, barely surviving the midcourt traps. They try to slow it down in the half-court, eventually drawing a shooting foul. Wood and Nick Malinowski check back in. Beloit's shooter makes the first, bricks the second. Steve's brother Paul Nordlund grabs the rebound, dishes to Toby Carlson at midcourt, who hits Malinowski, who finds Wood near the top of the key, who drives the lane and banks in a righthanded floater with two seconds left. The lead is now 18: Grinnell 79, Beloit 61.
At the half.
That's right, the half.
TWELVE YEARS ago, Grinnell was a Midwest Conference doormat coming off its 27th straight losing season. The 1,200-capacity Darby Gym was a crypt; morale was nothing but a word on the SATs. Coach David Arseneault, who took the head job in 1989 when he was 36, knew he had to make a change. "I gave the players a choice," he says. "We were either going to slow things way, way down, or we were going to speed things way, way up."
The players chose speed, and the Grinnell system was born. Three Midwest Conference titles and 40 D3 records later, the Pioneers are still going strong.
The principles are simple but extreme: drive and dish ... shoot the ball within 12 seconds ... take threes whenever possible ... shrug off misses and shoot again ... go to a 1-2-1-1 trapping press after made baskets, defensive rebounds and all dead balls ... force turnovers ... if you have to, give up a lay-up to get the ball back ... play free and on fire ... never, ever stop running.
Sophomore center Paul Nordlund, a kid who looks so shy and polite you expect him to ask for permission before he slaps your shot into next week, plumbs the bold heart of the approach: "The fundamentals of the system are unlimited shooting confidence and being extremely hyped. That's all we need." Senior forward Patrick Choquette adds, "We don't worry about forgetting plays and stuff. It's all based on instinct and effort."
So far this season, instinct and effort have produced a 17-5 record and 126.1 points a game. (Grinnell's 2001-02 squad holds the NCAA record for highest scoring average at 124.9.) The Pioneers have given up a trainload of points (112.6), but most nights they don't care. "We know going in that the other team's going to score," Arseneault says. "If the ball goes through the basket, you just get it and fire it down the court, again and again." And when you get there, you take a three, with impunity and without hesitation. In its first 22 games, the team took 1,432 shots from beyond the arc. (Yes, that's 65 a game.)
Three guys who've road-tripped in from Arizona for tonight's game against Beloit sit in the second row, giggling and shaking their heads. "My cousin's on the team," says Max. That would be guard Jack Kennedy, who ends up playing only two minutes. No worries. The visitors are still fascinated. "I'd heard about it," says Zack. "But I didn't believe it. Beloit's scoring a ton. How can they be so far down?" His buddy Omid heckles Beloit coach Cecil Youngblood for spouting platitudes at his kids in the huddle: "Yeah, yeah, make with the D and the rebounding and whatnot," Omid says. "That'll turn it around."
Single possessions don't count for much in a Grinnell game. Pace of play is everything. The way Arseneault figures it, his team needs to take about
100 shots and at least 50-odd threes a game, meaning it needs to create 30-plus turnovers in order to generate enough possessions.
How do you run up such gaudy numbers? Play in shifts. Like hockey lines leaping over the wall, the Pioneers often sub five at a time at dead balls. Assistant Emil Malinowski scripts the shifts. First it's Nick, Cole, Nate, Toby and Steve. Thirty-five seconds later, it's Choq, Matt, Nordy, Eric and Paul. At the next dead ball, in come Mike, Doug, Trey, Josh and Steve again. That's 14 players in the mix in less than two minutes. Earlier this season, Lake Forest players scrawled Pioneer numbers on their wrists in Magic Marker to keep track of the herd. Tonight, Youngblood's kids are busting their humps without a program or a prayer. They lose, 155-138. "If we have the energy level where we want it," Paul Nordlund says, "we believe that eventually the other team will fail to match it. And that's when we go on runs."
Make no mistake, the system is high-risk. If the Pioneers are creating turnovers and hitting about half of their threes, things go well. If the opposition protects the ball, and Grinnell goes cold, as it did in a recent loss to Ripon College, things get ugly-as in 18-for-71-from-downtown ugly. "Our system is an equalizer," Wood says. "We can play with teams more talented than we are, but we can also lose to teams we should beat, because every team can make lay-ups, and that's what we give up."
Wood is the least likely scoring machine in America: a deliberate, sad-eyed 6'2" off-guard with a young George Harrison's hair and no hops to speak of. He averaged 4 ppg at Richwoods High in Peoria, Ill. This season, he's second in all NCAA divisions with 29.6 ppg. The Nordlund brothers and Malinowski stretch the defense shooting threes while Wood works the gaps, drives the lane and makes an and-one killing at the line. He's strong and has terrific body control. Against Beloit, he racks up 55 points in 21 minutes. Against Carroll College the next afternoon, it's 47 in 25.
"He's only an average athlete," Arseneault says. "But he's relentless."
The system is no one-man show, though. Early in the game against Carroll, Wood rebounds the ball and hits Malinowski on the right wing. Malinowski skips it to Wineinger, who flips it to Toby Carlson, who finds Cole Robertson at the top of the key. Robertson pivots right to left, setting a subtle screen, and here comes Malinowski, curling by to receive a little shovel pass. Open look for three. Cash money. In nine seconds, from rebound to bucket, all five players touch the ball. Like the Globetrotters doing a hyped-up "Sweet Georgia Brown," they weave, cut and dive so quickly and lightly, the ball seems to hang in the air between them, moving by telekinesis. Critics of Arseneault's approach say he's bastardizing the game. Some opposing coaches call it a travesty. Others say it doesn't produce all-around players. "You have to put basic basketball fundamentals away when you play these guys," Carroll coach David Schultz says.
Maybe, but Arseneault says he's reaching for something much bigger anyway: "The system wasn't created to win championships. It's actually much more valuable in losing situations because the kids are having fun and their egos are intact. We lose a game and there are still positive things to talk about."
Turn Bobby Knight inside out like a ripped-off dish glove, and you get something close to Coach A. Even in a tight game against Carroll, he sits on the far end of the bench most of the night, away from the scorer's table and the heart of the action. You don't see punitive substitutions. Nobody gets chewed out for taking a bad shot.
When Steve Nordlund misses four three-pointers in a row, Arseneault says, "Keep shooting." Nordlund hits the fifth. And the sixth. When Malinowski comes up short on a running jumper, Coach says, "No problem, keep after it." Malinowski comes back down the next time and converts.
How do you measure the effect this has on players? First, you notice what's missing: furtive glances in the direction of the bench, indecisive follow-throughs, passed-up shots, hanging heads. Then you notice what's there: clear, alert looks, quick releases, heads high, smiles. Lots of smiles. "An inner calm," Arseneault says.
Late in regulation against Carroll, Grinnell is down 122-121. Paul Nordlund misses a lay-up with less than 30 seconds left. Carroll's point guard handles the pressure coming the other way, and ends up on the line, where he hits two: 124-121, 18 seconds to go. Cue the Grinnell weave, everybody getting a touch. Suddenly, there's Nordlund, fresh off the blown shot, with a clear look way behind the arc. He rises up, easy as you please, and the ball falls through the net. Darby rocks. The Scarlet Sea chants, "Whose house? Our house!" The Pioneers rush off the bench to hail the conquering hero. We're going to OT.
"Winning is definitely a focus for us, but it's also about enjoying the moment," says Nordlund. "We take shots because we feel confident and we like to shoot. None of us is going to play basketball for money, but we're playing a game the way we like to play it, and we're having a great time."
But what about those who do play for money, or who play at the big-time level? Could the Grinnell system translate? "We're in a nice, safe pocket in Grinnell, Iowa," Arseneault says. "Nobody particularly cares if we go 3-for-39 from three. If we were in a big city, and there were a couple of reporters who didn't like what we were doing, the players would get worn down."
Still, you can't witness the scene in Darby without wondering what the system would be like at a D1 program or, say, with the Hawks in the NBA. Arseneault's thought about it: "You can't tell me that 12 journeymen NBA players who excelled in either point penetration, shooting the three, ball-hawking or offensive rebounding couldn't put on a show and win their fair share of games doing this." Paul Westhead, who tried a running style at Loyola Marymount and with the Nuggets once upon a time, loves the idea: "If you could get the players to stay with it, you'd see more fun, more shots, more assists, more rebounds, more of everything."
But Westhead, now an assistant with the Orlando Magic, doubts we'll ever see fast-break ball again on a wide scale. "Basketball at every level has slowed down in the last 20 years," he says. "And a habit like that is hard to change." Coaches don't think of it, players resist it, the press doubts it. And so innovation withers on the vine. "It's difficult to launch a new system," Westhead says. "And it's especially hard, physically and mentally, to run. It's not just a leap of faith on the part of the coaches, players and organization; it's a complete remolding of the way you see basketball. It's the other side of the world."
One minute into OT: Grinnell 129, Carroll 129. Wood to Malinowski for three. Bingo. A missed three from Carroll. Wood rebounds, gets fouled and hits one of two. Five new players in. Pressure. The Scarlet Sea goes old-school, chanting "Deefense! Dee-fense!" Helter-skelter. Another missed three from Carroll. Nordlund rebounds, gets fouled and hits one of two. Trapping and pinching. Steal by Eric Walsh. Kick ahead to Steve Nordlund, who taps it to Choquette, who pops one from the baseline. All in 46 seconds. 136-129. Ball game.
Moments later outside Darby, it's quiet. The January wind whispers around stone buildings and across icy fields. Somewhere tonight, good teams, big-program teams, battled to a 67-64 decision. Somewhere tonight, they were walking it up and backing it down, muscling and shuffling. Not this place.
This place is the other side of the world.