One month ago, the odds that the Grinnell men’s basketball team would host this weekend’s Midwest Conference Tournament seemed miniscule at best. The Pioneers had won just one of four January games against their toughest opponents, which included a 49-point blowout loss to Carroll. The one victory, against Lawrence, came via a David Arseneault ’09 free throw with no time left on the clock.
“I came away from those games thinking the better team won,” head coach David Arseneault said.
But the pieces finally came together. Carroll and St. Norbert collapsed, and the Pioneers made personnel changes that have since produced an eight game winning streak and their best basketball of the year, winning by an average margin of 27 points. The trick? Play your best players, and play them often.
“Since we’ve played better teams, we’ve adjusted our substitutions,” coach Arseneault said. “More John [Grotberg ’09] Bobby [Long ’09] and David [Arseneault]… We’re sacrificing the future for the present.”
Grotberg, Long and Arseneault provide most of the Pioneers’ offensive attack, combining to score 64 percent of Grinnell’s points this season.
But throughout their careers, their similar offensive skill sets have meant that they have often led their own squads of five, with no more than two of them on the court at once. Since the Carroll loss on Jan 24, though, each member of the trio has seen their playing time increase to around 28 minutes per game, frequently putting all three of them on the court together.
“We don’t necessarily score more points, but we’re more efficient,” Long said. “When it’s just one or two of us on the floor, [our opponents] can put their best defenders on us.” With all three of them out there, the Pioneers can almost guarantee themselves one good offensive matchup, opening up the floor and usually guaranteeing a better shot.
The move goes against the system’s philosophy of tiring out smaller teams by continuously putting fresh players on the floor, but it is the kind of tweak that might finally help the Pioneers overcome their perennial struggle against quality opponents. Grinnell has made the Midwest Conference
Tournament more times than any other team this decade, but has won the tournament just once.
The team’s wins this season, however, didn’t come against the conference elite. The Pioneers are 13-3 in conference play this year, but 12 of those wins came against teams not in the tournament in a year during which the MWC had just four teams with winning records.
The Pioneers must win more games against the MWC’s top four this weekend than they have all year. Friday’s opponent, St. Norbert, comes in having lost four of their last six, but the Green Knights should still give Grinnell significant trouble.
“They slow the ball down a little, clog the middle of the lane, they know who the shooters are, and they have a week to prepare,” Grotberg said.
St. Norbert’s personnel is particularly suited to challenge Grinnell’s game. The Green Knights’ leading scorers, 6’4” forward Brian Fleischmann averaging 11.8 ppm, and 6’6” center Tom Katzfey averaging 11.4 ppm, will likely give the Pioneer defense problems and should wreak havoc on the boards. “[St. Norbert] usually outrebounds us by 20 every time,” Grotberg said.
If Grinnell survives St. Norbert, they will face the winner of Lawrence and Carroll on Saturday. Lawrence comes in as the MWC’s hottest team, winning their last seven by double digits with three of those coming against tournament opponents. Carroll returns all-conference guard Wes Ladwig from injury and just beat St. Norbert on the road, locking up the third seed.
But, it’s a wide open tournament, with all four teams holding first place at one point during the season. The Grotberg, Long and Arseneault show might be just the boost the Pioneers need to send them over the top and into March Madness.