Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Stunt Hoops

Been reading today about this crazy college basketball record set last night by Jack Taylor of Grinnell College, a Division III school in Iowa. You’ve probably heard something about it. Taylor scored 138 points in a 179-104 victory against Faith Baptist Bible College, a total that exceeded the old collegiate record by 25.

From all accounts, the Grinnell team played the game in a highly peculiar fashion, pursuing a strategy expressly directed toward giving Taylor a chance to put up gaudy numbers against a weak opponent. I say “peculiar” because few teams at any level ever follow the strategies employed by Grinnell and their coach David Arseneault, although apparently there wasn’t too much peculiar about Arseneault choosing such a route, as he’s done it several times before at Grinnell.

This is at least the third time a Grinnell player has set a D-III scoring record since Arseneault became coach at the small school a couple of decades ago. As Barry Petchesky reports for Deadspin, there was a 77-point game by a Grinnell player back in 1998 (then a record), and an 89-point game by another last year.

Petchesky spells out in his article how the game was mostly taken up with Grinnell choosing essentially to let their opponent score as quickly as possible in order to maximize the number of possessions in the game. Meanwhile, Taylor would remain on the Grinnell side of the court, not playing defense but rather awaiting full court heaves from teammates each time they got the ball.

Taylor would then shoot quickly -- usually a three-pointer (he attempted 71 of them) -- with his teammates often rebounding misses, passing up open shots themselves, and feeding Taylor the ball again for another shot. In the end, Taylor put up 108 shots, with none of his teammates trying more than six.

The ESPN article about the game includes a note about Taylor reading scripture to his teammates before the game -- from Matthew, the parable of the talents (natch) -- then being quoted after the game saying “I gotta thank the man upstairs” for helping “multiply my talents tonight.”

It’s hard not to be cynical about Taylor’s record-setting performance, the product of a contrived -- and not to mention not necessarily sportsmanlike -- strategy expressly designed to get media attention for tiny Grinnell. It reminds me a little of the debates we were having a few years ago about poker players acting out in order to earn TV time during WSOP broadcasts. The antics may or may have served a strategic purpose, but they certainly worked for some as self-promotion.

In a blog post for ESPN, Eamonn Brennan freely acknowledges that Arseneault’s primary intention for employing the odd strategy was to earn Grinnell national exposure, with winning the game being secondary. Apparently Grinnell picks its spots when it comes to such conscious record-breaking attempts, choosing weak opponents against whom the strategy of allowing the other team to score is less likely to hurt Grinnell’s chances of winning.

Brennan notes how he understands that when Arseneault employs the strategy he does so “to set a record and get on ‘SportsCenter’ and reap the benefits of copious Internet coverage.” However, Brennan also says he doesn’t mind such baldfaced attempts at getting included in a highlight reel.

“I don’t care!” writes Brennan. “Whatever the aim, it’d be foolish to try and take anything away from Taylor. At the end of the day, I don’t really care how you score 138 points. It’s 138 points! The sheer act of getting up 108 shots in a 40-minute game is in and of itself an impressive athletic accomplishment, regardless of how many go in.”

I’m not convinced. To me being able to shoot 108 times in a 40-minute game is only slightly more interesting than someone performing a certain number of push-ups in a given time period. Or eating 68 hot dogs in 10 minutes. Or raising before the flop 40 hands in a row in poker.

It’s a curiosity, sure. And perhaps it invites interesting speculation about strategic assumptions regarding optimal play. And sure, it’s an “athletic accomplishment,” all right, but let’s not get carried away.

In truth, Taylor’s 138-point night was mostly a stunt that got a lot of people to look. You know, like a dog skateboarding or something.

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Blogger Grange95 said...

I'm an Iowa resident, a former high school basketball player and referee. You really miss the mark by a mile here. Grinnell has a unique approach to the game, but it is within the rules and is designed to WIN games. Is it really so much different than the much-lauded Dean Smith Carolina "four corners" (lack of) offense?? The goal of the game is to outscore your opponent. The rules don't care if you win by 1 or 51, or whether you score 40 or 140. Just because the style is unusual doesn't make it "stunt".

You owe Jack Taylor an apology.

11/22/2012 12:25 AM  
Blogger Short-Stacked Shamus said...

As a lifelong UNC hoops fan, I well remember Dean Smith and the four corners. As a kid I watched that Duke game in which UNC was down 7-0 at the half. The four corners was a viable strategy for winning games that was indeed within the rules (at the time). We even imitated the four corners on our pee-wee teams (I remember parents yelling "chicken ball" from the bleachers). Watch the last 10 minutes of 1982 championship versus Georgetown, one of the last played before the shot clock/three-pointer. It's an entirely different game from the one played today.

I loved Dean Smith's willingness to innovate. I also loved his sportsmanship, and know he'd never have employed a strategy that involved humiliating opponents by continuing to fast break and pursue methods geared toward affecting an individual player's stat line after having built an insurmountable lead. Grinnell was up by 50+ for most of the second half, during which Taylor scored 80 of his 138 points. If the strategy employed Tuesday night was designed to win the game, that goal was easily accomplished by halftime. There was another purpose for employing it thereafter.

I'm not saying I'm not intrigued, of course. And while I bring up sportsmanship, I'm not even that bothered by a team or coach who doesn't make sportsmanship a priority (like Smith always was). I was also intrigued by Paul Westhead's Loyola Maramount teams which had some success in the late '80s pursuing a strategy that diminished defense and instead looked to maximize possessions and ultimately tire out opponents. I can see some similarities here and understand how Grinnell/Arseneault's style could be called a strategy designed to win games.

But how is having players repeatedly turn down open lay-ups to pass the ball back out to a teammate for a three-pointer a winning strategy? Ever, under any circumstances?

I'm not really with Barry Petchesky (the Deadspin writer) who calls the record "bullshit." It is an athletic accomplishment (as I say at the end). But I'm not apologizing for saying I'm not as ga-ga as Eamonn Brennan (the ESPN blogger) and others are about the game and Taylor's performance.

11/22/2012 9:08 AM  

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