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The Scarlet & Black

Grinnell men’s basketball throttles Knox in 55-point conference win

Will Bebee ’22 attempts at shot in Darby Gymnasium

By: Isaiah Gutman

For any college basketball fan not familiar with the Grinnell College men’s basketball program, the statistics from their current five-game win streak are eye-opening. The team has averaged nearly 113 points per game, hoisted more than 50 3-pointers in four of the five contests, and held opponents to 80 points per game on the defensive end.  

This season, Grinnell ranks third in all of Division Three basketball in points per game at 105, thanks to the style of play the team refers to as “The System.” Beyond its high volume of three point shots, The System incorporates units of players called “shifts,” a concept borrowed from hockey where substitutions are made in groups of five rather than piecemeal, player for player. Coach David Arsenault Jr `09 also emphasizes a press defense where players force opposing ballhandlers to give up the ball early and often, leading to more steals for the Grinnell team. Typically, The System leads Grinnell to put up wild outlier statistics – Ripon College, a conference rival, averages 70 points per game – but what they gain in total points can lead to sacrifices on the other end of the floor. In the first 12 games of the season leading up to their present winning streak, Grinnell had given up 96.4 points per game and had an even record at 6-6.  

The recent stretch of games – beyond the gaudy numbers of multiple 50+ point margins – has shown the team’s ability to keep their opponents from matching their offensive success. Behind their 32-point average margin during the streak is a fearsome turnover advantage: Grinnell has forced almost exactly double the turnovers it has given up, 24.6 per game versus 12.4. That difference has led to another margin, as the Pioneers have put up nearly 15 more shots per game over the streak than the other side. Hot shooting has helped make the final scores absurd, but the team has put itself in a position to succeed on the defensive end. 

In their most recent home game against Knox College on Saturday, Jan. 26, Grinnell held their opponents to 32% shooting on 53 shots, a full 30 fewer attempts from Knox, on their way to a 116-61 victory. This was the second matchup for the two teams on the season after Knox won 84-80 on Nov. 27. For guard Dean Mazlish, `23, the win was evidence of how far the team has come. “That team we were in the past and the team we are now are definitely different,” he said. “We’re shooting better, and we’re defending a lot better.” While the win over Knox jumps off the page as a 57-point beatdown, Mazlish said he was prouder of the team’s success against Ripon College in their previous game, on Saturday, Jan. 22. “Winning by 60 points or whatever against them [Knox], it’s impressive … but it’s kind of a product of the system,” Mazlish explained.  

While Knox has failed to win in-conference outside their November win, the Grinnell team had plenty of motivation behind their impressive victory on Jan. 26. Mazlish recounted overhearing a Knox player bragging before the game that Darby Gymnasium was their second “home court,” and that Knox could treat it like a home game. “We kind of took that personally,” Mazlish said. 

Both Mazlish and teammate Adam Phillips `23 credited time the team spent together over winter break as crucial in building the chemistry that has fueled their recent run. Phillips said that they “grew a bit more as a team” when basketball players were some of the few students on campus in the early weeks of January. “I will say it’s a totally different atmosphere on campus…like night and day,” he said. “A few of the guys [on the team] have a house off campus, so we were always in there together…We were always watching sports.” That chemistry has helped fuel their dominance since their return to campus. “Guys are figuring it out now…Things are starting to click,” Phillips said. “So, it’s looking good.” 

Like many other sports teams locally and nationally, COVID-19 has taken its toll on the men’s basketball roster. Grinnell’s games against Illinois and Cornell Colleges, both scheduled to take place on the road between Jan. 29 and Feb. 1, were postponed to later in the month of February. That sets up a hectic month of Midwest Conference play as Grinnell sits in fourth in a tie with Illinois and behind Cornell, Ripon, and Lawrence University. Mazlish and Phillips are both confident in the team’s chances. “There’s no team in the conference that’s as talented as us,” Mazlish said. “If we just continue to play the way we’ve been playing, I don’t see any reason why we can’t win out, win the conference.” 

Grinnell plays Monmouth College in a double-header on the weekend of Feb. 5 and 6, and will host Illinois College on Wednesday, Feb. 9. Christian Brookens ‘22 is scheduled to debut for the season against Monmouth on Saturday after an ACL tear sidelined him for the first 17 games. Phillips anticipated the impact his return could have on the team, calling his injury a “key loss” in the early part of the season. Third year guard Aiden Gilbert also plans to return to the lineup from a wrist injury. Amid the season’s longest win streak, Grinnell finally has their roster at full strength. 

Phillips emphasized that he’s excited to finish out the season, no matter the result. “It’s just always fun being out there,” he said. “Especially, you know, with the way things are … you never really know which one [game] could be your last. Gotta leave it all out there.”  

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