Grinnell's 'system,' still basketball

Column: RICK SOLEM
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He scored 109 points.

Black River Falls, Wis., native Jack Taylor put up the third-most points in NCAA basketball history Sunday for Grinnell College (Iowa).

Of course, he set the record a year ago with 138 points.

And while some are applauding the feat, others speak negatively about how it was accomplished.

Negative talk of Grinnell’s gimmicky offense, how Taylor doesn’t get back on defense (not true) and how teammates pass up open layups to get Taylor the ball to chuck up another shot (not true).

But let's get this out of the way first: Taylor went 24-for-48 from beyond the arc. Go in the gym right now and shoot 48 3-pointers and come back and post how many you made. Oh, and step a foot behind the line. That's the college distance (20 feet, 9 inches).

NCAA Single-Game Points
138: Jack Taylor (2012-13)
109: Jack Taylor (2013-14)
89: Griffin Lentsch (2012-13)
77: Jeff Clement (1997-98)
71: Jack Taylor (2013-14)

Here’s the thing with Grinnell and coach David Arseneault: He took over the program in 1989, a program that didn’t have a winning season in 25 years. 

He continued to play “basketball” in the traditional sense his first two seasons to no avail. He then implemented the “system.”

Since, Grinnell has been to the postseason 11 times, set the nation's scoring record 17 times and won the conference title five times.

Guess how many conference titles UW-La Crosse men’s basketball team has since, not 1989, but 1965-66.

Zero.

Guess how many times UW-La Crosse has been to the NCAA tournament since 1983.

One.

No, Grinnell, Lawrence, St. Norbert and the rest of the Midwest Conference aren’t the Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (WIAC), but it’s working for Grinnell. People are talking about it. We’re probably going to continue arguing about it and that’s that.

The “system” is simple: shoot quick, shoot 3s, shoot more than the opponent and do so by forcing turnovers. They sub in players every minute.

The system isn’t “give the opponent layups, sandbag (or cherry pick) one guy on offense and then throw him a full-court pass and watch him chuck a 3-pointer while the other four players stand there.”

You can go watch the game on Grinnell’s website.

You can see it’s just basketball … basketball at a frantic pace … basketball with Grinnell forcing a lot of turnovers (34).

No, it’s not great basketball. The WIAC plays some great basketball. UW-Whitewater won it all in 2012 and UW-Stevens Point in 2010.

But what Grinnell plays is still basketball. Basketball, not with a gimmicky offense, but with a full-court pressing defense.

The shot selection is the gimmick – a gimmick or what a coach/math teacher sees as a formula for success - and who shoots it may or may not have been predetermined, but when my teammate starts hitting every other 3-pointer, I’m passing it to him, he’s shooting it and I’m rebounding – repeat.

And Taylor didn’t cherry pick to get these shots off.

Grinnell presses. Taylor guards the inbounder. If they break it, he ends up at half court. If they don’t, he plays defense.

Yes, Grinnell wants to score and set records and gain attention - the opponents in which he scored triple digits weren't good - and plays somewhat unorthodox to do so.

How else are you going to recruit players to come to the center of Iowa?

Jack Taylor’s 109 points were a product of many things, but the main one was, not a system, but the recognition of his teammates to feed the fire. He was 11-for-20 from 3 at halftime. 

And those teammates didn’t pass up bunnies for Taylor 3-pointers.

I’ve given up shots in the lane on offensive rebounds – an “easy layup” as some are calling it though it's not - to get a teammate the ball behind the arc. It happens all the time. I’ll do it at noonball later today.

Gripe about how Grinnell’s system isn’t basketball, but it is. Plus, it’s a lot more fun to watch than a team running a four-corners offense.

Have you been to a game and watched 5-10 minutes tick off the clock with a team holding the ball at half court?

Do we complain about the Wisconsin Badgers’ system? No, because they win all the time – 12 NCAA tournaments in a row with Bo Ryan. But they win playing some very “traditional” – code for awfully boring – basketball. Basketball people here love - me included - but not anywhere else.

And how do the Badgers go about doing this? Math. A philosophy. A “system.”

One that’s, perhaps, perceived as the opposite of Grinnell’s, but they’re not so different.

Play defense. Shoot 3s. Simple.

Both teams want to wear down the opponent. The pace is what’s opposite.

Wisconsin wants to shoot 3s (over 40 percent of their field goals have been 3s the last two seasons) and keep the opponent from shooting 3s.

More specifically, it wants to shoot good 3s and force bad 3s and eat clock while doing it.

From Sports Illustrated: “Ryan's coaching strategy is based on his view of the right and wrong types of treys. … Wisconsin cares less about distance than it does about situation. There's an efficiency gap between the 3s Wisconsin wants to take (squared-up, catch-and-shoot attempts, especially on kick-outs from post-ups or offensive rebounds) and those it is willing to let opponents take (the on-the-move or challenged variety). … But the Badgers believe that the more they control the quality and volume of the highest-value shot, the more the odds will be in their favor.”

The difference: players don’t mind going to Wisconsin to play defense. You have to sell someone going to Grinnell. And if you’re a Division III talent that wants to get on the court, maybe get on ESPN – even if you’re just passing to a teammate who’s scoring 100 points – there could be worse places to play. Beloit?

All this flak because a kid scored 100 points. Twice. 

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