Buzz about the Buzzsaw
In March, Justin Lunt had a revelation.
In April, he told his players.
And now? Lunt's University of Puget Sound men's basketball team is 7-3 and averaging 99.3 points per game.
The NCAA Division III Loggers are using a fast-paced approach adopted from the Grinnell (Iowa) College "System." The Loggers call it the "Buzzsaw."
With a focus on aggressive defense, 3-point shooting and offensive rebounding, the Tacoma, Washington, school of about 2,600 students is averaging 22.5 points more per game than it scored last season, when UPS went 12-13.
More important, the Loggers are challenging top teams in the Northwest Conference and elsewhere.
Over the next two weekends, the Willamette Valley will get a taste of the bizarre Buzzsaw, when Puget Sound will play at George Fox, Willamette, Pacific and Linfield.
The impetus for Puget Sound to embrace the unconventional came at a March 2017 D-III playoff game in Walla Walla, Washington. Lunt was there to see Rhodes College of Memphis, Tennessee, face the No. 1-ranked team in the country, undefeated Whitman.
Lunt had lost the previous six games to Whitman, a perennial power and league rival. Upstart Rhodes had sneaked into the playoffs at 17-11. Whitman was heavily favored.
After observing each team practice, Lunt was unimpressed by Rhodes' personnel.
"When they walked into the gym, honest to God, I'm going: 'These guys are going to lose by 100.' No exaggeration. I'm thinking, 'They have no chance. It's going to be at least a 60-point win for Whitman,'" Lunt recalls.
Whitman did win. But with five minutes remaining, Rhodes trailed by only five points. The final score was 111-98, but Rhodes had had a chance — playing untraditional basketball. Rhodes used its own System, featuring constant full-court pressure, rapid shots and total havoc.
"It was the first time I had seen Whitman tired all year," Lunt says.
Before that game, Lunt thought the frantic System was a gimmick.
"And then I watched Rhodes play," he says. "That they were hanging with the No. 1 team in the country — who was more athletic than them — I was blown away."
Lunt wasted no time. He picked the brain of Rhodes coach Mike DeGeorge that night and asked about his constant substitutions (five new players every minute), his team's aggressive play, and its uncommon approach.
In April, he gathered his Loggers and told them: "Listen, Whitman's going to be the No. 1 team in the country, and we need something to beat them. This is what we're going to do."
Make 500 3's
Puget Sound sophomore Stellan Roberts, a Portland native and Cleveland High graduate, is one of 12 Loggers receiving 10-plus minutes per game this season. The 6-5 wing/post is averaging 8.2 points and has become one of many effective 3-point shooters for the Loggers. Part of that comes from his offseason regimen.
Once Lunt knew he wanted to run a version of the System, he altered his team's summer workouts. He asked his players to continue working on their game and stay in shape. But also, if they wouldn't mind, could they make 500 3-pointers per day?
"A lot of guys on our team weren't 3-point specialists," Roberts says.
After an offseason spent toeing the perimeter, the Loggers are averaging 14.6 made 3's per game and shooting 34.7 percent from deep. Last season, they finished at 7.9 and 34.2 percent.
A staple of this year's practices is for each Logger to shoot until he makes 100 3's.
"If we're going to get a lot of them up, we need to practice a lot of them," Lunt says.
Improvement is starting to take place throughout the roster. And in one practice, it took the team's best marksman, 5-10 junior guard Gabe Chaikin, merely 106 attempts to reach the 100-made mark.
The emphasis on 3's is only one change the Loggers have had to accept. Most of the team has had to nearly abandon the basketball they've played their entire lives.
In practice, the Loggers use a 12-second shot clock. Roberts was shocked at the pace.
"When (Lunt) first told us, I didn't think it was going to be anything like this," Roberts says. "He said we were going to play really fast and run and sub a lot and press a lot. I've played against teams that press a lot and try to speed the game up. But I've never played against a team that does anything like what we're doing."
Roberts estimates he made 20 total 3-pointers in his high school career. But in Puget Sound's Buzzsaw — which stresses layups and 3's (other 2-point shots are not embraced) — he is one of six players with 10 or more 3-point makes already.
Grinnell's System is based on five statistical goals, one of which is to shoot 94 shots per game, half of which must be 3-pointers.
Puget Sound's Buzzsaw follows slightly modified principles. Lunt hopes the Loggers will force turnovers on 29 percent of opponents' possessions, rebound 35 percent of their offensive misses, foul 25 or fewer times per game, average at least 1.15 points per possession and hold their opponents to 1.15 points or fewer.
"Anytime we've reached three of those goals, we've won thus far this year," he says.
How it works
On the court, the Buzzsaw positions are labeled 1-5, but not in the traditional sense. For example, the 4 is the team's center and the 5 is a combo guard. Offensively, the team has no enforced pecking order.
"Everyone knows their roles. If you get any kind of look, you're shooting," Lunt says.
The offense is based upon penetration that results in a layup or a pass to a 3-point shooter, open from staggered screens.
Of the team's 15 regular players, four are forbidden from spotting up for a 3; they hang near the basket. For the other 11, they always have the green light off a pass, but not always off the dribble. Point guard Jimmy Wohrer (who Lunt compares to Stephen Curry) is the only player encouraged to pull up from distance. He's averaging 23.3 points on 39.7 percent shooting from beyond the arc.
Defensively, the Loggers run a full-court trapping press every moment of every game. The press always has the same shape, although wrinkles are used to keep opponents on their toes.
But perhaps the strangest difference is the substitution pattern. About every 45 seconds, Puget Sound shuffles in five new players. If a shift lasts longer than a minute, the players on the court seek to draw a foul or foul an opponent to force a dead ball. The Loggers regularly rotate 15 players.
Keeping fresh players on the court allows for incessant energy. The primary goal is to fatigue the opposition.
Lunt preaches the importance of tiring other teams and capitalizing on a stamina advantage in the closing minutes. Late in games, dog-tired players who are unaccustomed to playing such up-and-down games lose their legs and make mistakes. That's when the Buzzsaw is at its best.
"The last 10 minutes is all about the meltdown," Lunt says.
That's what the Buzzsaw leads to. The Meltdown.
Puget Sound opened the season and its wacky experiment 6-0, including an 87-74 win over then-No. 15 Claremont-Mudd-Scripps. The Loggers then lost 95-84 to ranked Whitworth and, on the following night, played Whitman — the inspiration for the makeover.
The Loggers led by two points with one minute left, before falling 111-108. But the point had been made. They could play with Whitman, 11-0 heading into 2018 and the unanimous No. 1 team in the country.
Throwing a variety of presses at an opponent has its advantages. As does shooting quickly and often. But System basketball breeds another benefit: team chemistry.
The System was invented by Grinnell's David Arseneault in the early 1990's in the Iowa cornfields, largely to maximize player participation.
"Arseneault is a genius," Lunt says. "Now that I've gotten to know everything about it, it's not a gimmick, in my opinion. I think it's genius. It's built camaraderie with our team. It's built focus. It's built cohesion. All of our guys are extremely engaged."
Roberts, who played traditional basketball at Cleveland and in his first year at Puget Sound, likes the adjustment.
"It's different. It's weird. But I really enjoy it," he says.
Instead of only seven or eight players seeing the court, 15-plus receive playing time. The idea is that it leaves more players content with their contribution.
That's the thinking of Dave Arseneault, Jr., the son of the System's mastermind and the current Grinnell coach.
"Without a doubt, the chemistry is incredible," Arseneault Jr. says. "Everybody feels like they'll be playing meaningful minutes."
It can be difficult to find 15 capable basketball players to rotate, but that's not absolutely necessary. Arseneault Jr. says players who might not be college basketball quality can still fill a role for his team.
Lunt sometimes cringes when a few of his less-skilled players are on the floor. But that's no matter — each player is a cog in a larger Buzzsaw machine. And, the team is winning.
With so many players seeing the floor, Lunt also can advertise immediate playing time to recruits.
"I haven't had a recruit say he didn't like it," Lunt says.
The Buzzsaw has slightly affected the way he recruits. He targets big men who may not be be skilled with their back to the basket, but are athletic. Mostly, he looks for players that will fit the style in some way.
"If they can shoot, we'll take them," Lunt says.
A 2003 graduate of Pacific Lutheran, Lunt entered this season with a 162-122 record in 11 years as UPS head coach. His Loggers have made the four-team NWC tournament five times, winning one league title and once reaching the D-III Sweet 16.
But he faces tough competition in the NWC, and Lunt considers rivals such as Whitworth and Whitman to be much more talented than his squad.
"If we were to play 5 on 5, (they) would beat us by 30," he says. "The only way we've got a chance to put ourselves in this position is ultimate pressure and flipping the game upside-down and utilizing our depth. And it's really worked."
The System, in all its forms
Puget Sound sports information director Gregor Walz remembers the first game the UPS statistician tried to score this season. With constant changing of possession, it can be difficult to record the flurry of stats.
"He just had that 'whoa' reaction," Walz says. "It took him at least the first half to get used to it."
That "whoa" reaction from statisticians and fans is becoming increasingly common. Besides Puget Sound and Grinnell, which has run the System for over 25 years, Rhodes and Greenville (Illinois) are playing nearly identical basketball. Grinnell entered the week ranked second in the nation this season with 124.4 points per game, 0.3 out of first place. Rhodes ranked third at 114.5.
Macalester (St. Paul, Minnesota), the University of New England (Biddeford, Maine) and Concordia (Austin, Texas) are other Division III schools that have partially adopted the brand.
"More teams are starting to realize the value of player participation," Arseneault Jr. says. "One of the ways to level the playing field is play to an extreme."
Plus, basketball is becoming increasingly reliant on the 3-point shot — something the System has done for decades.
"For whatever reason, my dad was way ahead of the curve," Arseneault Jr. says of his retired father.
The System has never quite caught on at the D-I or NBA level, although Arsenault, Jr. brought a variation of it as a head coach in the NBA Development League from 2014-16. His Reno Bighorns, affiliated with the Sacramento Kings, led the league with 133 and 123 points per game, going a combined 53-47 in 2014-15 and 2015-16).
The System may never spread to the highest levels in its current form, but its tenets already are there. In the D-I Big Sky Conference, Portland State is averaging 92.3 points per game thanks to full-court pressure, quantity substitution and up and down the court play.
"My biggest thing was, I didn't want good players sitting on the bench," says Barret Peery, PSU's first-year coach and a longtime proponent of uptempo basketball.
Arseneault Jr. says 3-point shooting NBA teams, notably the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets, have had an effect on basketball principles.
Still, not everyone loves the System. It's untraditional. To some, it's cheap. Even Lunt called it a gimmick for a time.
But, "there's 10,000 ways to skin a cat. And this how we're going to play," Lunt says. "And we're in every game, and we're winning games."
On the court, opposing players have told Roberts: "Play real basketball." He thinks they do.
"Real basketball is full-court basketball. And we're beating them playing full court basketball," Roberts says.
Says Arseneault Jr: "There are so many different ways you can play the game. One of my favorite parts about being a coach is trying to think of new and creative ways to play. ... If you're going to lose to someone more than likely anyway, then why not do something unconventional that gives you a puncher's chance?"
Circus act of sorts
Roberts' classmates initially were puzzled.
"Is this actually how you all are playing this season? Is this gonna be all year?" they asked.
Now, the school is on board. After all, System — or Buzzsaw — basketball is nothing if not entertaining.
Games are full of action, whether it be steals, 3-pointers or dunks, by both teams.
Roberts laughs when asked if his team gets dunked on much.
"There's a lot of fast-break dunks because we're pressing and running," he says with another laugh. "Yeah, they get a lot of dunks going."
But that's fine.
Lunt believes the same as Arseneault Jr. — that it's OK to be the most dunked-on team in the country. After all, aggressive defensive pressure will leave the basket unguarded. At Grinnell, when an opposing team dunks, the home student section whoops and cheers, because it means their team gets the ball back.
Lunt says he doesn't worry about his team giving up open dunks and layups. "We're going to get the ball out, and we're going to go," he says.
The System is so unorthodox Roberts says he didn't fully wrap his head around it until, after weeks of practice, he was playing in a game. He says it's hard for opponents to anticipate the Buzzsaw.
"Until they're playing (against) it, I don't think anyone expects to play as fast as we're playing. Because I sure didn't," he says.
When Grinnell plays road games, spectators show up by the hundreds to see the freak show on hardwood. David Arseneault Sr. — the System's creator — knows why.
"The circus is in town," he says.
Editor's note: Hayes Gardner played "System" basketball for Grinnell College from 2011-15. He totaled 22 career points.
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