Jack Taylor’s Bogus Journey

You've probably heard about tiny Grinnell College's Jack Taylor going for an NCAA record 138 points earlier this week against Faith Baptist Bible College. "Neat!" you might have thought. "He must be really good, he should transfer to D1," you might have thought. But it was not neat, and Taylor's record has more in common with Kazakshtan beating Thailand 52-1 in ice hockey than it has with Wilt Chamberlain's 100-point game. Here are six facts about the game and Grinnell's basketball "philosophy."

1. Drive around any decent-sized city until you find a full-court game with adults being played. Chances are, those guys you see are better than the basketball team at Faith Baptist. I say this not to be mean to Faith Baptist, just stating a fact. They don't play in the NCAA or even the NAIA, but something called the NCCAA (National Christian College Athletic Association). I'm the biggest college sports guru I know, and I hadn't even heard of the NCCAA until a few months ago while researching a different article.

They have less than 600 students, and none of them, I feel safe in saying, chose Faith Baptist for basketball-related reasons. These are a dozen or so random guys who like to shoot around against a team that is specifically designed to humiliate such teams.

2. Speaking of that design, this is not the first time in recent years that Grinnell has attracted attention for mondo bozo stats. Last year, Grinnell's Griffin Lentsch scored 89 in a game and it made ESPN.com. Lentsch played against Faith Baptist, too. He scored 7 points on three shots. He did not start.

3. The Grinnell game plan was this, and they run a similar MO when playing any other overmatched team: designate a guy to break all the scoring records he can. Keep him in the game as much as possible, and do not let him play defense. Do not even let him cross over to the defensive side of the court. He needs to be available for baseball passes when the other team misses. Other players should shoot very sparingly and indeed, there were many instances of Taylor's teammates passing up wide open layups to get it to him, usually behind the arc.

4. This strategy is pretty much admitted by the charlatan Head Coach of Grinnell, David Arsenault. As Deadspin points out, Arsenault actively touts such a system, and that's not all. He hawks it for money, via books and videos. What a better way to get your product out there than to orchestrate ludicrous individual performances in this team game and wait for the media to swoop in?

5. Arsenault's system is this, again via Deadspin: "94S + 47 3's + 33%OR + 25SD + 32 TO's = W

The 'Formula for Success' has withstood the test of time. Since 1996, whenever the Pioneers have attempted 94 shots, with half of those shots from behind the arc, offensive rebounded 33% of their missed shot attempts, taken 25 more shots than their opponent and forced the opposition into committing 32 turnovers, they have won at nearly a 95% clip."

This can only work if the team you are playing sucks. Against competent opposition, jacking 47 threes is pretty risky, you will likely not force them into such a high amount of turnovers, and you obviously cannot play 4-on-5 on defense like Grinnell did against Faith Baptist.

Arsenault's system is actually a scam in the classic sense. Have you seen classified ads on how you can make big bucks from home just stuffing envelopes, send us $5 and we'll give you the secret? Then you find the secret is to take out a bunch of classified ads asking marks to send you $5.

Arsenault's scam works much the same way: Buy my books and DVDs, and I'll show you how to rape your inferior opposition in such a way that the national media takes note, and then you too can monetize the publicity.

6. Just how embedded is Arsenault's system? The announcers were speculating during pre-game that Taylor would be setting records tonight (he shot 5-of-18 and 6-of-23 in Grinnell's previous two games, clearly a man destined to change basketball as we know it). The below tidbits from Tyler Burns, who mercifully watched the game tape so I don't have to and hence throw my laptop against the wall in disgust):

"The announcer actually said that Grinnell will look on their schedule for their weaker opponents and do everything they can to run up the score and break records. This is all within the game plan. One tactic the announcer mentioned was called 'The Bomb Squad.' If Grinnell’s opponent gets into the double bonus, Grinnell will sub in five freshmen players, foul their opponent immediately once the ball is in play, send them to the line, then sub the freshmen players out to put their scorers back in on offense. This takes almost no time off the clock, giving their starters as many offensive possessions as possible. To win the game? No, not necessarily. To break records.

"Every single person in that gym–the players, the announcers, the coaches, the fans–were hell-bent on setting records during this game. The entire flow was completely fixed to feed Jack Taylor the ball on every single possession. The announcer was even counting down the record for most points in a HALF. Who cares about that record? Grinnell does. It was weird."

"Weird" is the very, very kindest word I can think of to describe the mockery. This is the most carefully-engineered and therefore egregious act of unsportsmanship I have ever heard of.

Last year, North Carolina was second in Division I in scoring, with 82 points per game. If there was any justice, the NCAA would mandate that UNC play Grinnell, using Grinnell's tactics. And foul Jack Taylor hard. No. Foul David Arsenault hard.

Comments and Conversation

November 23, 2012

Tanisha:

Jack Tyler he racist

November 24, 2012

Paul:

You are just mad that you didn’t get into Grinnell. It’s ok most people don’t. Also rape is a horrible word to minimize. You clearly hate fun and don’t respect women.

November 24, 2012

Brad Oremland:

Kevin,

Routing a team like Faith Baptist Bible College is not good sportsmanship, but Grinnell uses that style of play against everyone. It’s exciting to watch, it’s distinctive and interesting, and it’s actually a simple strategy based on sound fundamentals.

If you can run the fast break and make lay-ups, you’ll beat Grinnell. They play defense with four men, they often don’t have their best players on the floor, and all they shoot are lay-ups and three-pointers.

Against Faith Baptist, they got 53% of their offensive rebounds, and they repeatedly got Taylor open. That’s good team play. Running up the score was unsportsmanlike, but teams win by 70 in college hoops all the time. Teams and individuals engineer records all the time.

Do you get this upset when a team agrees not to defend for a play, just so someone can break a record? Do you get this fired up about people like Brett Favre and Drew Brees relentlessly pursuing personal glory? Do you thunder your righteous anger when Nebraska schedules Idaho State?

I’m not sure how David Arsenault is a charlatan. Grinnell has been running the same game plan for years, every time they take the court. It’s an interesting way to play, and if Arsenault has found a market for his ideas, that doesn’t make him a bad person. You don’t seem to be aware that this is more or less how the team plays every game.

I’m sorry you object to the story making national news, but you’re making this a much bigger deal than it is. A player scoring 138 points is interesting, and I don’t think many people are reading much more into it than that.

November 24, 2012

Kevin Beane:

Hi Brad,

I know Grinnell plays similarly to this in other games, but I bet they don’t pass up undefended layups against a team that can play them competitively; if they do, I take back what I say about Arsenault. He’s not a charlatan, he’s simply insane.

When Nebraska plays Idaho State, they don’t game plan to try to hang 100 on them even though they surely could. In most games like that, the better team runs straight up the middle on every play in the 4th quarter. You know, sportsmanship. Oh, and their starters and second string are long gone by that point.

As the Deadspin article points out, when screwy Farve/Strahan plays happen in the NFL, or Brees “relentless pursuit” of records, I’m not crazy about it but at least it’s against de facto competitive opponents (the Saints are but 5-5).

When Nykesha Sales got the UConn scoring record at the free throw line, they gave their opponent an uncontested basket and the record was achieved with their express permission and blessing.

Furthermore, these are single plays, not an entire game predicated on setting a record based on the fact that the opponent simply cannot stop you. Teams playing overmatched opponents tend to minimize the embarrassment, and Grinnell did the opposite. It doesn’t remotely compare to your examples. It gives Arsenault publicity where he can hawk his “system” in ebooks and DVDs or whatever.

November 30, 2012

Brad Oremland:

Kevin,

Apologies in advance for a long reply, though I suppose you’re accustomed to those from me.

You write that Grinnell utilizes the same style “when playing any other overmatched team”, but it’s not just overmatched teams; it’s everyone. Grinnell games never end 50-49. The designated scorer — Taylor, this year — hardly ever plays defense. The whole game is fast breaks and threes.

It’s cool to see a school with limited athletic talent try something different on the court. You’ve written about this before: if you’re the underdog, you can’t play conventionally. Grinnell is known more for academics and social activism than sports, but the men’s basketball team is competitive because it approaches the game uniquely. Sports are supposed to be fun, and Grinnell’s style of play is fun.

I agree that the team’s approach demonstrated poor sportsmanship, but I just don’t see this game as distinct from something that happens in sports all the time. Where’s the moral distinction with something like Nebraska’s tenderhearted 73-7 victory over Idaho State this September? It was 45-0 at halftime, but that didn’t keep the Huskers from dropping a 21-0 third quarter on a hapless opponent. That’s okay, but a D-III school does the same thing and it’s a crime against humanity? I don’t get it.

I actually view something like the Nykesha Sales record as worse, because that’s not even honest competition. Say what you will about Grinnell’s sportsmanship against Faith Baptist, but Taylor really scored those 138 points. Sales wasn’t even playing basketball when she broke the record. An uncontested lay-up? That’s PRACTICE. Not a game, not a game, not a game. We talking about practice. That’s a phony record, and it’s not sports. You may not like the method, but Taylor scored 138 against a team that was trying to stop him.

If you’re outraged by the Pioneers refusing uncontested lay-ups — free points — then it seems like you’re more upset about the sanctity of the record than running up the score, so I don’t get how you condone Favre/Strahan and Nykesha Sales.

Ultimately, I just don’t understand what separates this from a hundred other instances of questionable sportsmanship or tainted records. Why does this merit a whole column, complete with a rape analogy and a conclusion urging violent reciprocation? Both seem out out character for you.

November 30, 2012

Kevin Beane:

Brad,

First, no need to apologize for long replies. The longer, the more interesting. In your case at least.

Second, just to get this bit of housekeeping out of the way, I do indeed regret the violent and especially rapey metaphors I used. I won’t dismiss the use of such metaphors out of hand, but in my case (and in most cases) it was lazy, unimaginative, and that’s what lowers it to the level of the offensive if you ask me.

On to the crux of your comment…again, I see huge, fundamental differences between the Taylor-Arsenault Travesty and the other examples of poor sportsmanship we keep bandying about.

I guess I do care somewhat about the sanctity of how the game is played, and how it is altered in the quest for records, but not, in and of itself. There’s two other key components that apply to this game that apply to neither Nykesha Sales or Michael Strahan.

First, and less importantly, in both the Sales and Strahan examples, it was with the permission of the other team. In Sales case, that permission was explicit and indeed would not have been POSSIBLE without the consent of the other team. More implicit in the case of Strahan, but still there. Consenting adults, so to speak. I don’t love it, but you’re right, doesn’t really grind my gears.

Secondly, and more importantly, I am pretty sure neither Sales bucket or Strahan’s sack had much of an impact of the outcome of the game. It was a hiccup and then the game progressed as usual.

You could argue that Taylor’s record also did not impact the outcome of the game, ‘cause there’s no way Faith Baptist wouldn’t have beaten them anyway. But it was a all-game-long assault on the “sanctity” of the game.

Maybe it wouldn’t be if this was indeed how Grinnell normally plays. But is it? I grant you they apparently play 4-on-5 defense and emphasize jacking up as many shots as possible. You’ve already granted me (I think) that passing up uncontested layups is probably not how Grinnell normally plays, so as funky fresh as Grinnell plays the game, there was that tweak. But here’s another one.

Below are stats from Grinnell’s four victories this year. The first number is the number of shots Taylor took, and the number of shots Grinnell took as a total.

18/97 vs Rockford
23/87 vs Crown
108/136 vs Faith Baptist
12/93 vs Knox

Taylor may be their “designated scorer,” (although Griffin Lentsch, last year’s chosen recordbreaker, takes about as many) but it’s normally expressed as a % of his team’s shots that’s sane. Why, 12 attempts against Knox (whom they beat by 37, so it’s not like they’re screwed if Taylor has an off night)? Makes me wonder if they are even actually having him play defense rather than mull around halfcourt like everyone tells me Grinnell does all the time.

So between that discrepancy and passed-up layups, yeah, I’d say Grinnell went out of their way, all game long, to change the way even they normally play in service to this BS. Not just a minor tweak.

I think the best counterexample would be something like this: Mike Gundy wants to show the world that he’s the greatest passing guru in the history of the game. So he sets out to get his QB the single-game record for passing TDs and his #1 WR the single game record for receiving TD’s against Savannah State. They succeed en route to an 144-0 victory in which OSU passed on 98% of their snaps, including in the 4th quarter up by over 100. Somehow WR# 2 ends up with the ball on a busted play and breaks free, but hands off to WR#1 at the goal line to selflessly pad WR#1’s stats, at Gundy’s insistence.

I’m literally laughing at such a prospect, as sooo-never-would-happen as it is. The media would really (violent metaphor here I’m not willing to make). If Gundy did get any admirers out of the bunch, he’d ask them: you want to buy my series of DVDs called Gundy’s Total Offense?

And while you get points for bringing up my beloved trope of underdogs playing unconventionally to win, boy does it not apply to Grinnell. They are very successful at their level and although their website only goes back to last season, I don’t see any big-money games against a lower D1 opponent to try out the David role against. Nebraska destroying Idaho State does not come anywhere near such a hypothetical.

“That’s PRACTICE. Not a game, not a game, not a game. We talking about practice.”

A meme I never tire of. In fact, I think I’m off to Youtube to watch AI lay down a distinction that’s very important to him yet again.

December 1, 2012

Brad Oremland:

I’m not sure we’re on the same page with the Nebraska / Idaho State issue. I was asking why you’re okay with that, but not with Grinnell / Faith Baptist. Is it because there were no records involved?

I’m also wondering… if Arsenault didn’t make any money off his system, would you still have a problem with what happened? If he had just said, “You know what, Jack Taylor’s a good kid and he has a chance at a pretty cool record, let’s see what we can do to get him the mark,” would you still object so strenuously?

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