Men’s basketball preview: defense, effort top priorities


Evan Hein

Tate McLean `23 on the offense against Northern Iowa Area Community College in a scrimmage on Oct. 26.

Isaiah Gutman, Sports Editor

The Grinnell men’s basketball team was not looking to start off the season with a blowout loss. The team dropped their first game on the road to Luther College, 95-76 on Tuesday, Nov. 8. But for this team, a slow start should not be cause for alarm. They bounced back on Thursday, Nov. 10, against out-of-conference opponent Barclay College to the tune of 155-81. Adam Phillips `23 and David Bluder `25 scored 27 and 22, respectively, while Dillon Gestring `25 added 16 points, 8 rebounds and 4 blocks in the big win. 

Last season, the team had an up-and-down start. After 12 games, their record stood at an even 6-6, and their first post-pandemic season looked like it would end no better than the team’s 13-12 2019-20 season. Then, something clicked over winter break. A low-scoring 81-70 loss to Midwest Conference (MWC) regular-season champion Ripon College on Jan. 4, 2022 preceded a 10-game winning streak that ended more than a month later on Feb. 19. The team ended the season on a three-game losing streak, but their final game was in the MWC tournament, an achievement Coach David Arseneault Jr. said he did not expect before the season. 

Reflecting on their turnaround, guard Dean Mazlisch `23 said the team had learned that, “it doesn’t matter what your preseason ranking is, it doesn’t matter how the last five games have gone. Especially with the way that we play, if you can flip a switch and find the right pieces to put together, you can be really good.”

Mazlisch remembered the streak as being fueled by high-effort defensive play. “We just started outworking our opponents,” he said. Coach Arseneault Jr. agreed that the team’s defense “became our calling card” during the streak, and the statistics back him up. Grinnell’s defensive strategy is well-known as a part of “The System,” where the team puts more pressure on the opposing offense than nearly any team in the country. Their strategy of forcing snap decisions by ball handlers has led to high turnover numbers by opposing teams, but before last season opponents tended to shoot at high rates when they did not turn the ball over. In the 2018-19 season, a year where Grinnell finished second in the conference, opponents shot 55.6% from the field compared to Grinnell’s 43.2%. Last season, the team held opponents to 49.9% — the first time that number has been below 50% in the team’s available statistics (publicly available statistics date to the 2011-12 season).

Coach Arseneault Jr. and Mazlisch credited defensive effort for the team’s success on that end, but they acknowledged the impact of strong individual performances from Will Bebee and Tommy Smith, both `22. Bebee led the team in blocks, finishing his career third all-time in blocks for Grinnell. Smith’s impact may have gone under the radar for many, but his ability to stay vertical and affect countless shots at the rim prevented a common strategy for opponents to run up the score against the Grinnell press by forgoing three-point shots and funneling all of their shots to the rim. 

Despite these two big losses, Coach Arseneault Jr. felt that the team could replace their defensive impact. “I think we got some really, really quality, capable guys that can fill the void at the back line of our defense,” he said. Tolu Johnson `25 will be one key player the team relies on in the role of “safety,” which is The System’s equivalent of a big man. Johnson and John Vincent `26, a 6’9 first-year player, will need to quickly round into form if the team hopes to defend effectively this year.  

Replicating their success defending the rim is not the only path to defensive success for Grinnell. In past years, Coach Arseneault Jr.’s defenses have excelled when they consistently force turnovers and turn those giveaways into offense at the other end. In 2018-19, the team scored 32 points per game off of turnovers, an area where they enjoyed a 16-point per-game advantage over their opponents. Last year, that advantage was only 8.9 points per game. Mazlisch emphasized that “what really influences whether or not we win games is our energy and effort,” which shows up most on the defensive end. 

Another effort statistic to watch: free throw attempts. Grinnell took more free throws per game than their opponents last year after losing the free throw battle badly in 2019-20. If they can keep that up, offense will come easier for a team that has sometimes struggled to score on two-point shots.

The men’s basketball team started their season off with a game on the road at Luther followed by two at home on Thursday, Nov. 10 and Saturday, Nov. 12 against Barclay and North Park University. Their next games are Tuesday, Nov. 15 at 7 p.m. in the Darby Gymnasium against Wartburg College and on the road at Lake Forest College on Nov. 19. Next week, the S&B will preview the team’s offense and catch up on their early-season performance.