The buzz about University of Puget Sound men’s basketball team is not only that they’re winning, it’s how they’re winning.
They take a lot of 3-point shots. They play full-court defense. And there’s almost constant substitutions.
Mirroring the crazy-fast style of Midwestern programs Grinnell College (Iowa), Greenville University (Ill.) and now Rhodes College (Tenn.), the Loggers are back to playing an up-tempo, not-always-efficient but entertaining brand of basketball.
At 16-6, the Loggers have already recorded their most victories for a season since 2011-12 in the first year of coach Justin Lunt’s new system. If UPS trips up cross-town rival Pacific Lutheran Tuesday night in Parkland, it would reach 10 or more league wins for the first time in four years.
The style is not only producing wins, but big stats — UPS ranks in the top 10 in the country in scoring average (No. 6 at 98.5 ppg), made 3-pointers (No. 7 at 12.5 made shots) and forcing turnovers (No. 4 at 26.0 turnovers per game).
“The last couple of years, we were so worried about our opponents. It was exhausting mentally,” Lunt said. “But now, doing it this way, we just do what we do.”
Lunt knows traditional basketball pundits may never accept this style. But he says he is committed to it for the near future.
And the players – who are rotated into the game about every 45 seconds – are OK with it, too.
“Me being a shooter, I’ve always liked that fast-paced style of play,” said guard Jimmy Wohrer, the NWC’s leading scorer at 23.0 points per game.
“And I know people around campus like it. Everyone likes high scoring. And it is bringing more fans out, even people who are not so sure about basketball.”
RHODES SHOWS THE WAY
Last season, Lunt was the NCAA West Regional representative assigned to first- and second-round games in the national tournament at Whitman College in Walla Walla.
Whitman, led by former UPS coach Eric Bridgeland, was undefeated and ranked No. 1 in the country. Their first-round opponent was undersized Rhodes, the Southern Athletic Association champion who utilized the fast-paced attack.
After Lunt watched both teams practice, he figured Whitman would blow out Rhodes.
“They were running the Grinnell system … and I wondered, ‘Were they really going to play this way knowing how superior Whitman was athletically?” Lunt said.
Rhodes lost – 111-98 – but it pushed Whitman to the final minutes.
“They had depth. They had great shooters, and guys who could get to the basket,” Lunt said. “And they utilized what size they had very well.
“I thought this style fit our personnel coming back.”
Mike DeGeorge is the Rhodes coach. He grew up attending summer camps at Wisconsin-Stevens Point led by former coach Dick Bennett, who later guided Wisconsin-Green Bay, Wisconsin and finally Washington State. He learned that basketball was meant to be played with discipline and defense.
It wasn’t until DeGeorge spent one season (1999-2000) as an assistant coach at Grinnell under David Arseneault Sr., who created the fast-paced “System” brand, that he began learning a completely different way to approach the game.
“The craziest thing, teams would shoot 80 percent against us (at Grinnell) from the floor, and we would win,” DeGeorge said. “The boxscore would not make any sense.”
So, last season DeGeorge decided to implement that style at Rhodes for the first time, but with a few twists.
“We went from being slow to super fast,” DeGeorge said. “And at first, the pace was too fast. We couldn’t see what was unfolding in front of us.”
Once the new style caught on, the wins began piling up. Rhodes won 10 games in a row before running into Whitman at the NCAA Division III tournament.
“People that play against it do not like it,” DeGeorge said. “It is stressful to coach against.”
LOGGERS LOVE IT
After the national tournament, Lunt was in immediate contact with DeGeorge about the details of this system. When he introduced it to his own UPS players last spring, he laid down a blueprint almost identical to what Rhodes does.
Before any basketball was to be played, Lunt demanded that his players get into the best shape of their lives.
“I had no idea how hard I would have to work,” Loggers forward Jeremiah Hobbs said. “We started doing bear crawls, stairs, morning runs — everything you can imagine.”
Secondly, Lunt wanted his players getting perimeter shots up in bulk, and in a quick fashion.
When it came to devising a strategy on how to run the system, Lunt watched every game that Rhodes, Grinnell and Greenville played last season.
“All three of them run it in different ways,” Lunt said. “But all three have two things very much in common — they use full-court defensive pressure, and they substitute five new guys in every minute.”
So last fall, this new basketball-meets-Crossfit style was installed at UPS.
And the Loggers’ first test came in an exhibition game against Division I Seattle University.
Lunt tried everything Rhodes does — rotating 15 players every 45 seconds or so. At breakneck speed, the Loggers tried harassing Seattle U with full-court defense. And when they got the basketball, they tried getting the best shot up in the shortest amount of time.
The game was a mismatch — the Redhawks won convincingly, 121-70.
But something revealing happened: UPS forced the bigger, stronger and more talented team into 32 turnovers.
“Those were some monster dudes,” Hobbs said. “But when we did that, that is when I was convinced this style was going to work.”
Two weeks later, UPS traveled to California and swept the top three teams in the SCIAC — Redlands, Pomona-Pitzer and Clarmont Mudd Scripps —in the span of four days.
“We are always the aggressor, no matter who we play,” said Wohrer. “They have no time to relax.”
What UPS players and coaches have noticed is that, under constant pressure at such a fast pace, opponents start to show wear and tear at the 10-minute mark of the second half. All of them refer to it as the “Meltdown” state.
“It is really noticeable,” Hobbs said. “We don’t get boxed out as hard (on rebounds). They don’t get out to our shooters as quickly. They get sloppy trying to defend us off the dribble.”
With Lunt playing so many guys, a different dynamic has formed: Everyone is engaged at practices, in film review and on the bench during games.
Even Jewell Day, who normally would not play in other programs as the 12th or 13th man on the roster.
“It’s been a lot of fun, because we get to play almost as much as the other guys,” said Day, a Black Hills High School graduate who also plays football at UPS. “I was attentive last year, but this is at a whole different level. I mean, it’s easy — we all see ourselves on (game-review) tape.”
With this new style, Lunt has bought into a different set of statistics to determine good and bad performances.
Generally, for team-game goals, he relies on five advanced-stat measurements, on the recommendation of DeGeorge:
▪ The Loggers need to force turnovers at a 29-percent clip.
▪ They need to rebound 35 percent of their missed shots.
▪ They need to commit no more than 25 fouls.
▪ They need to average 1.15 points per possession.
▪ They need to limit opponents to 1.05 points per possession.
In 13 of the team’s 16 wins, UPS has accomplished at least three of those game goals.
“There is a general feeling you can’t win the whole thing (NCAA title) playing that way,” Bridgeland said. “But I don’t know if there is anything bad about it. It gets you to play fast. ... It also tests your depth when they play 15-18 guys. It tests your ball-handling. It tests you through the adversity they create.”