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The Grinnell System: Men’s basketball’s defining trait

Contributed by Ted Schultz
Sean Murphy `26 takes a shot on basket. The key tenets of the Grinnell System include taking 94 shots a game, half those shots being taken form the 3-point line, recovering one-third of the missed shots, taking 25 more shots than their opponents and forcing 32 turnovers.

Inside Darby Gymnasium, banners denoting the years of various Grinnell championships decorate the walls. Among these accolades and names hang two banners that might confuse those who are unfamiliar with the Grinnell College men’s basketball team. Those banners list 20 different years when the team led the nation in scoring.

To understand where these records come from, you must go back to 1989, when head coach David Arseneault Sr. took over a program without a winning season in 25 years.

David Arseneault Sr. on the sidelines of a Grinnell men’s basketball game while he was head coach of the team. (Contributed by Ted Schultz)

 “After two years here, I became convinced that anything resembling a traditional basketball approach would just add to the losing streak,” Arseneault Sr. wrote in an email to the S&B. 

Arseneault Sr.’s new approach was anything but traditional. He came up with what is now known as the “Grinnell System,” which features fast-paced play, many three-pointers, a constant full-court press and hockey-esque line changes where all five players come out at once. 

Students came up with five numerical goals that, if achieved in a game, would almost always result in a Grinnell win, said David Arseneault Jr. `09, current head coach of men’s basketball and son of Arseneault Sr. 

Those five goals, Arseneault Jr. said, were in each game — in order, take 94 shots, have half of those be 3-pointers, of all missed shots, recover the rebound on 33%, take 25 more shots than the opposition and, finally, force 32 turnovers from the opposition. 

Head Coach David Arseneault Jr. `09 poses with the men’s basketball team after his 100th career win at the collegiate level. The Pioneers beat Lake Forest College 148-123 during that game on Nov. 25. (Contributed by Ted Schultz)

“I wasn’t really so concerned about whether a new approach would produce wins as much as I was hoping it would give our players something positive to talk about when we lost,” Arseneault Sr. wrote. 

The system, however, quickly produced wins, as Grinnell won the Midwest Conference (MWC) championship in the 1995-1996 season.

That season, Grinnell averaged 85.28 shots per game, and on average, 57.13% of those shots were from the 3-point line, according to statistics available on the Grinnell Athletics website. Grinnell missed 1296 shots that season and had 536 offensive rebounds, meaning that Grinnell had an offensive rebound on 41.36% of missed shots. On average, Grinnell took 19.08 more shots per game than their opponents, and forced 26.16 turnovers per game. 

 Grinnell was just under the first goal, exceeded the second and third goals, and fell short of the fourth and fifth goals. Grinnell finished the season with a 17-8 record, losing in the first round of the National Collegiate Athletics Association Division III tournament. The following season, the Pioneers lost in the semifinal round of the MWC tournament. Three losing seasons followed, but in the 2000-2001 season, the team found its stride again. 

That year, Grinnell averaged 92.08 shots per game, 58.91% of which were from the 3-point line. Grinnell had 1286 missed shots and 508 offensive rebounds, for an average of 39.50%. Over the season, Grinnell had 26.96 more shots than their opposition and forced 30 turnovers from the other team en route to another MWC championship.

Grinnell’s men’s basketball earned national recognition when Jack Taylor `15 earned the record for most points scored by a single player in a college basketball game with 138 points. 

On Nov. 20, 2012, in a game against Faith Baptist Bible College, Taylor attempted 108 shots and made 52, including 71 attempted shots from the 3-point line and making 27 en route to his record-setting total. 

Taylor alone achieved the first 2 goals of the System and took 26 more shots than Faith Baptist Bible. The team had 54.11% offensive rebounds on 68 missed shots and forced 49 turnovers. 

Unsurprisingly, after accomplishing all of the goals and with Taylor scoring 138 points, Grinnell won 179-104. 

David Arseneault Jr. took over the team when his father retired after the 2015-2016 season, but this was not his first head coaching experience. Between 2014 and 2016, Arseneault Jr. coached the Reno Bighorns of the National Basketball Association (NBA) Development League, now called the G-League. 

There, he instituted a version of the Grinnell System which resulted in the Bighorns leading the league in points scored for two straight seasons. Later, in only his third season since coming to coach Grinnell’s men’s team, Arseneault took the team to the MWC championship semifinal game. 

In that season, the Pioneers averaged 89.68 shots per game, 63.51% of which were from the 3-point line. The team had an offensive rebound on 40.66% of missed shots. On average, Grinnell took 17.8 more shots per game than the opponent and forced 25.12 turnovers. 

Even though the Pioneers did not win that season, it was another season where results came because the goals of the System were more or less met. 

The true beauty of our system is that it has basically withstood the test of time. Once ridiculed by many, today much of what we do offensively has been adopted by the majority of NBA teams and college programs at all playing levels across the country.”

— David Arseneault Sr., former head men's basketball coach

“The true beauty of our system is that it has basically withstood the test of time. Once ridiculed by many, today much of what we do offensively has been adopted by the majority of NBA teams and college programs at all playing levels across the country,” Arseneault Sr. wrote. 

While the System has undergone numerous evolutions to adapt to the changing game and the players on the team at any given time, the core of the philosophy has more or less stayed the same. 

To this day, Grinnell plays the same high-paced, three-heavy, electrifying basketball. See it for yourself when the Pioneers take on Cornell College Wednesday, Dec. 6 in Darby Gymnasium in the Charles Benson Bear `39 Athletic and Recreation Center at 5:30 p.m.

Correction 12/11/2023 11:11 am: This article has been updated to include the correct spelling for Coach David David Arseneault’s name.

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About the Contributors
Henry Horn
Henry Horn, Staff Writer
Henry Horn is a second-year history major from Pasadena, California. He likes riding his bike, listening to songs that don't belong together, and watching soccer. He can easily be bribed with Hot Tamales or a bloody mary sandwich with no tomato but with jalapeños from Jay's Deli.
Evan Hein, Staff Photographer
Evan is a second-year psychology major from Kansas City, Kansas. He once had to ask his friends to describe him in one word for a psych project. 33% of the twenty-five descriptive responses were the word “ginger,” followed by a small chortle.
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    Michael DaleyDec 5, 2023 at 7:12 am

    As an Alumni (‘72) I embrace The System because it is so “Grinnell.” Everyone plays. Everyone contributes. Everyone wins.