Run and gun: Hoop mayhem
Steve McKibben lives in Cornwall, but teaches in Connecticut at Hotchkiss School. He’s also the junior varsity basketball coach there.
Last year, when he was the assistant coach, the team won only one game and lost 11. “It was a miserable season,” he says. “Everyone was down, no one had any fun.”
Handed the reins this year, he decided to do things differently.
A basketball player himself, McKibben was intrigued by the extreme “run and gun” basketball approach of Coach Paul Westhead at Loyola Marymount (Calif.) College in the 1980s and successfully refined in the last decade and a half by David Arsenault, coach at Division III Grinnell College in Iowa.
With the varsity coach’s go-ahead, McKibben decided to play “the System,” with his high school boys this year. “It wasn’t a hard decision,” he said recently. “I could lose playing traditional basketball, scoring 30-40 points a game, playing the best guys — or I could play everyone, asking for a total all-out effort all the time, and lose that way.
“Or maybe not lose.”
Grinnell has been to the NCAA Tournament 10 times under Arsenault, and they’re 18-4 this year, averaging 112 points a game. Early in the year, they defeated William Penn College by a 150-135 score and have totaled 145 and 148 points in other games. The Pioneers scored 135 points against Illinois College recently, and lost!
In Grinnell’s 145-97 win over Principia, their best player, Griffin Lentsch scored 89 points.
Closer to home, Castleton College Coach Paul Culpo has implemented this approach. His Spartans score 94 points a game, have a won-loss record of 16-9 and are 15-3 in the North Atlantic Conference (NAC), good for second place going into the league tournament.
Middlebury College played Castleton on Jan. 17, with the Panthers coming away with a 97-71 victory, Castleton’s lowest point total of the season. Earlier in the season, Middlebury defeated another practitioner of the run and gun, RPI, by a 123-111 score.
Here’s how it works: The goal of “the System,” is to take 100 shots a game (by contrast, the Panthers average about 58). This means offensive players must shoot the ball, attempt a field goal, within 10-12 seconds of the possession.
Preferably that shot is a three-point attempt. The goal is to take 50 three-point shots a game. Grinnell took 67 threes in a 128-87 win against Knox College this season, and made 29. RPI, in its game against Middlebury, took 92 shots in the game, 42 threes.
Middlebury (23-2) attempts 13 three point shots a game.
The System requires 40 minutes (32 in high school) of unconditional, frenetic effort. The key to success is pace: fast, fast, FAST. Control the pace, get your opponents, however imposing, to play faster than they want to and they will wear down eventually, make mistakes, and play your game. Controlled mayhem.
Players enter the game in waves, five at a time, like lines in ice hockey. Every 30 seconds or so, five new players report to the scorer’s table to be whistled in at the next stoppage of play.
Looking at these extraordinary point totals, it can be assumed that little defense is played — but the reverse is actually true: defense is paramount. All-out, full-court pressure is applied all the time, the whole game.
If the opposing team successfully breaks the press, an easy lay-up is usually the result. That’s OK. Let ’em score. You want the other team to shoot quickly, within 12 seconds, even if it means giving up a hoop intentionally.
The sooner they score, the sooner you can get the ball out of the net and race back upcourt, and nail a three. Pace. Pace. Pace.
The idea is never to give the opposition a chance to rest. Apply ongoing, incessant, relentless pressure. Break their spirits. Don’t worry about the score — it’s only the score at the end that matters. Early struggles will pay off later in the game.
It’s not pretty basketball — the purists hate it. There are lots of fouls and turnovers. Why worry about fouls — everyone on the team plays.
In Middlebury’s win against RPI, the Engineers committed 37 fouls — Midd took 47 foul shots, making 32. Middlebury’s best player, 6’8” Ryan Sharry, had 41 points on 18 for 21 shooting. Many of his shots were on the back end of the press.
Now, what about our friend McKibben, in Connecticut. Well, his jayvee team has seven wins against five losses, have won three in a row, and are averaging 73 points in their last five games.
“In contrast to last year when we had malcontents at the end of our bench,” he writes, “this year everyone plays, everyone works hard, everyone shoots. I coach less and cheer more.
“My advice to my team during practice is the same as during the game: ‘Run harder, take risks, shoot more.’ We may not win every game, but the players love playing, their hoop IQ is increasing exponentially, and they play as a team. We do everything at full speed, and when they are tired, their teammates replace them, so our effort never wanes.”
Go get ’em, boys. Run and gun!
Mark A. Nelson of Bristol
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