Commentary

89 points?! Griffin Lentsch books 'em

It was all part of the plan for the junior guard at Division III Grinnell College

Originally Published: November 25, 2011
By Johnette Howard | ESPN.com

The Duke men's basketball program is top notch. Nothing wrong with perennial powers like Kansas or North Carolina, either. But if you're a player who dreams of shooting and scoring in an all-you-can-eat offense buffet, get thyself to tiny Grinnell College in Grinnell, Iowa, young man, like Griffin Lentsch did. What are you waiting for?

Now that "The Jimmer" -- BYU's Jimmer Fredette -- has taken his next-town-over jump-shot range to the NBA (if it ever comes back), it might not be long before you're hearing more about "The Griffer," who was told by his Grinnell coaches to keep shooting last Saturday night in a sort of mad scientist think-tank experiment to see just how many points he could ring up in their novel attack that they simply call "The System."

Lentsch, a 6-foot-4 junior guard, didn't stop until he had a record-smashing 89 points against Principia College. He hoisted 55 field goal attempts -- 33 of them three-pointers -- and made 22 trips to the foul line in the 36 minutes he played. When jokingly asked four days later if his shooting arm hurt, Lentsch laughed and sheepishly said, "Um … honestly? Maybe a little."

Grinnell won the game, 145-97, and for the next few days, "The Griffer" (my new nickname for him -- pass it on) was walking around the school's campus of 1,600 students fielding congratulations and admittedly still awestruck whenever something reared up and reminded him, "Why … I am -- would you believe? -- the new leading single-game scorer in NCAA Division III HISTORY?!"

[+] EnlargeGriffin Lentsch
Courtesy of Grinnell College Sports InformationHere's two of the 89 points Griffin Lentsch scored against Principia last Saturday.

"Weird," Lentsch laughed in a phone interview this week.

By Monday, Grinnell had edited the game tape of Lentsch's record-setting performance into a breathless condensed highlight video of every basket and free throw he scored -- "All 89 points in just 4 minutes and 38 seconds," sports information director Ted Schultz laughed -- then posted it on YouTube. By Tuesday, Lentsch still had that look of wonder when he ran into Pioneers co-head coach Dave Arseneault Jr. and said, "Do you know when I looked up that video you put online, it already had over 100,000 hits? I can't believe it."

"The smile on his face was just priceless," Arseneault says.

Still, Lentsch's scoring explosion is not that "weird" if you know Grinnell's history, or the details of "The System" that longtime Pioneers coach David Arseneault created and now runs with his son, Dave Jr., who still holds the Grinnell record of -- could this be right, too? -- 34 assists in one game.

A lot of Grinnell basketball records are Bunyanesque like that.

The D-III scoring record that Lentsch broke was actually held by another Grinnell guard, Jeff Clement, who scored 77 points in 1998 and saw his game sneakers, jersey and the game ball sent off for an exhibit at the Basketball Hall of Fame. Last season, Grinnell averaged 110 points. The school has had six Division III national scoring champions since the elder Arseneault arrived in 1989 and made the decision to scrap the conventional offenses he used to run.

Interest in the Grinnell basketball program was flagging back then. The private liberal arts college is annually ranked among the nation's best educational institutions -- a hidden Ivy, it's often called. The 165-year-old school takes a lot of pride in its famous alums and progressive approaches such as making all head coaches faculty members or leaving it to students to fully design their own four-year curriculums. (There are no core requirements, beyond one intro course.) Thinking outside the box is highly encouraged. So why shouldn't the same be true of the basketball team?

The attack the elder Arseneault devised to win and drum up interest seems to borrow bits of everything from Paul Westhead's run-and-gun offense at Loyola Marymount to Nolan Richardson's "40 Minutes of Hell" full-court press at Arkansas. But Arseneault added this twist: He divides his 15-man roster into three groups of five and subs in a new shift every 45 to 90 seconds, much like a hockey team -- the better to keep up a relentless end-to-end pace.

"The System" was love at first sight for Lentsch, who grew up in Lake Forest, Minn., about a five-hour drive from Grinnell.

"The way I'd describe it is just total chaos -- controlled chaos for us because we know what we're doing, but just chaos, period, for the teams trying to keep up with us. At least it seems that way to me," Lentsch says.

[+] EnlargeGriffin Lentsch
Courtesy of Grinnell College Sports InformationA match made in Iowa: Griffin Lentsch and Grinnell.

"The other thing I really love about it is everyone on the team gets to play every night, so everyone gets to feel they're really part of the team and part of the victory."

That's a nice thought, isn't it? A competitive college program run with a signature style and generosity of spirit where everyone down to the 15th man on the team is literally all-in?

Before this season, it was rare for Lentsch -- or any Pioneer -- to play 20 minutes a game, even though he'd averaged 18.2 points over his career. And sure enough, in Grinnell's next game, Tuesday's 115-97 win over Wartburg College, he was back to scoring a more mortal 27 points and didn't even take the court until Grinnell's third shift.

"But not once does he ever say, "Give me the ball more." Not once does he ever say he should be playing more," says Grinnell point guard Pat Maher.

So how did Lentsch's record-setting night happen last Saturday?

It wasn't by accident. And Clement says his 77-point night wasn't, either, back in '98.

There's a quirky story behind all of that too.

After the Pioneers finished last season with a late 10-game winning streak, the Arseneaults sat down with Lentsch for their usual postseason exit meeting and seemed to surprise him by saying, "Griffin, we think we must be the worst coaches in the country this year."

Why? "Because as we told him," Dave Jr. says, "'We were playing you almost the exact same minutes as the 15th guy on the team, and you're our best player.' Then we said, 'We really think you can be a national scoring champion here.' And Griffin, he just took it all in and he nodded. He's just a great, great kid, but I always laugh because he can go a whole practice without saying one word. So then we also said, 'Griffin, do you think you would like to play more minutes?' And he just looked at us, looked up in the air, then looked back at us and finally said, 'Yes. I think I would.'"

The Arseneaults told Lentsch to work even harder over the summer and he'd be rewarded. But they had no idea that Lentsch, also a high jumper for the track team who's cleared 6-5, would hire a personal trainer on his own and come back in "ridiculous" shape. They couldn't project the confidence boost Lentsch got by playing for a Division III college all-star team last summer.

When the Pioneers started fall scrimmages, "Griffin scored, like, 45 points in 17 minutes against a pretty good community college team we played," Dave Jr. says. "Then he had 36 points in 13 minutes in our exhibition game against a travel team from South Australia. That's when my dad and I asked ourselves, 'Is there a tipping point here? Would double his minutes played mean double the production? Let's find out.'

"We were the preseason pick to win the conference title this season. If we should we be lucky enough to really be in that position of playing for the conference title or an NCAA bid, how much could we ask of Griffin and the rest of the team?"

Clement, now a 34-year-old financial analyst who just moved back to Grinnell, says it wasn't the first time Arseneault Sr. had embarked on a sort of "What if" quest, or run the team offense through one player for an entire game. The night he scored his record 77 points, Clement says he, too, ended up shooting 55 times because, "Coach Arseneault said beforehand our goal was to try to score 100 in the first half. And I think we got to 80."

[+] EnlargeGriffin Lentsch
Courtesy of Grinnell College Sports InformationLet's see … 89 points in 36 minutes of playing time? Yep, just about 2.5 points per minute.

Lentsch's memory of his 89-point game is that he started "a little off" from three-point range and wasn't sure how to pace himself. But after about 10 minutes, his shooting started to heat up. Soon, he was scoring from the outside, scoring on the break, pulling up for three-pointers even when no one was in his way to the basket and occasionally driving to the rim and inviting contact.

"I get goosebumps even talking to you now about it," Arseneault Jr. says, "because he was doing things he's never tried or done before."

The scoreboard at Principia happens to display each player's jersey number and how many points he has during the game, which helped the other Grinnell players feel some building excitement. Principia started trying different defenses: a 2-3 zone, a box-and-one, some double-teams, Grinnell's point guard Maher says. The fouls Lentsch was drawing were clean, but they started to get a little harder. None of it mattered.

Lentsch broke Clement's record with over four minutes still to play. A Principia player finally asked him what his previous career high was, and they both laughed when Lentsch said, "36." When he passed 80 points, Dave Jr. walked to the end of the bench, took the chair at the end next to his dad (who is taking a sabbatical this year to finish his second book), and told him he wanted to watch the last few minutes together because, "I don't know if we'll ever see something like this again."

Now Clement, who has been away on a family Thanksgiving vacation all week, says he's looking forward to congratulating Lentsch in person because, "Grinnell is a tight-knit family, he's a great kid, and I couldn't be prouder of him."

By mid-week, Lentsch was still getting voice mails and text messages and Facebook posts about the 89 points. The funniest one, to him? Pat Chalupa, his best friend on the team, put up a Facebook message to him that said, "Pass the Ball!"

And Maher agrees that clearly it's time for the just-minted, all-time single-game scorer in NCAA Division III history to have a new handle.'

"'The Griffer' as in 'The Jimmer'?. I like it," Maher says.

"Why not?" Clement laughs.

"I can work with that," Arseneault Jr. agrees.

And "The Griffer" himself? What are his thoughts?

All in all, it's been a magical Thanksgiving week.

Again he laughs. And again he says, "This is still just so hard to believe."

Johnette Howard is a contributing columnist to ESPN.com and ESPNNewYork.com and is the author of "The Rivals: Chris Evert vs. Martina Navratilova, Their Epic Duels and Extraordinary Friendship." She can be reached at jphinbox@yahoo.com.

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