Greenville, the highest-scoring basketball team in America, isn’t a gimmick
It’s the easiest way to get an otherwise-unknown basketball program into national headlines: achieve something unusual and alien. Whether people will actually like said achievement is up to them, because you can run afoul of unwritten rules with what you do. There are certain acceptable styles of playing basketball, and any attempt to stretch those boundaries will naturally be met with some amount of pushback. Sometimes, this boundary pushing is as simple as extremist shot selection. Maybe you want a player to score lots and lots of points. Maybe you want your team to score lots and lots of points. And, well, maybe sometimes you foul your opponent with ten seconds left to get to – and take advantage of – your chance at 200 points in a game.
What’s funny is that Greenville University played by the unwritten rules of basketball for a very, very long time. Dr. George Barber has been the Panthers’ head coach for 20 years, and for the first 15, he ran a half-court motion offense that looked…well, like most other college basketball teams. There wasn’t a ton of unique work going on; Greenville won, but it obviously wasn’t a national story when it happened. Prior to the 2015-16 season, administrators at Greenville came to Barber with a request: every sports program at Greenville needed a full junior varsity roster to help increase athletic participation at the school.
Suddenly, Barber had 25+ players to deal with, not 12-15. “I thought, “Man, how am I going to engage this many kids?” It’s going to be like summer camp in practice,” says Barber. He needed a change. For several years, his athletic director had told him about the Grinnell System. (You know it because of Jack Taylor, a player that scored 138 points in a game.) With the added participation and necessity of a change, Barber embraced something entirely different. “I’m not trying to get a guy to score 100 points or whatever, but that’s what pushed me over the edge,” Barber notes. Little Greenville University, a college of under 1,000 students, was about to look unlike anything we’ve seen before:
By 2018-19, the transition was complete and beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. Greenville averaged more than 135 points per game this season, setting an NCAA single-season record. They won games 200-146, 167-145, and 150-109; they lost games by 139-129, 161-153, and 163-146 scores. To Barber, it’s a pretty simple equation: “We are a grand experiment to see how good you can be when you play with complete freedom.” The experiment is, by most measures, a giant success. Since switching to the Grinnell/Greenville/Greenillville System, the Panthers are 57-24 in their last three seasons. They’ve won the St. Louis Intercollegiate Athletic Conference three times in four years. Oh, and they are INCREDIBLE FUN:
“I think young people have a lot of energy, so I want to release that instead of stifle it,” says Barber. Of all the people I’ve interviewed for this series, Barber is the one that sounds least like your stereotypical college basketball coach, which is funny. He worked under Rick Pitino for several years and has been a head coach for the last two decades. He played college basketball as Asbury under Cecil Zweifel. His resume, and history, reads like that of, well, a pretty normal basketball coach. And yet: he once told his team that all they have to do is hold the opponent below 150 points when they suggested holding them under 100. “I’m glad they wanted to hold them under 100, but the real objective is to hold them to 149 or less. That number works!”
It takes an unusual brain to consent to this system, certainly. Greenville rotates their full lineup – all five players! – out every 50 seconds. They prefer to think of their roster in terms of something resembling hockey lines rather than a nominal rotation. They press every single possession on defense. It is non-stop by design. “I hate playing down. I want to squeeze every ounce out of the clock and try to meet our goals,” says Barber. Every Greenville game looks more like the last lap of the Daytona 500 than an average college basketball game:
And even when it slows down a tiny bit, it’s still pretty exciting to see unfold:
Barber understands that you’ve got to think way, way outside the box to ever consent to something like this. “One of my biggest admirations is [former Grinnell head coach] Dave Arsenault. Dave saw me at a game once and he said “come on down. You should’ve been here the other day – we were up by 28 and lost in spectacular fashion. And finally, it was like I got it!” Thriving in weirdness is what college basketball desperately needs more of. “You’ve got to be a little crazy to run this, because what coach has that perspective? That’s how you can do this and how you can pull off this stuff,” says Barber.
While you’re here, let’s talk about the reason you’re here: the 200-point game. It got Greenville on ESPN and Forbes Magazine, one of the more rare double-billings in America. Barber knows that you probably feel some complicated feelings when you think about scoring 200 points. First, his very kind rebuttal: “Just the prior year, we’d combined for over 300 points and they beat us in double overtime. They were a very formidable foe.” Secondly, it simply happened to be an unusually efficient night against a team that went 8-10 in SLIAC play this season (3-15 the year prior). Greenville had 172 points with just over six minutes to play because they simply couldn’t stop hitting shots:
“In the System book, it says “we always wondered if we could score 200, but we were never able to,”” says Barber. “We got to 198 with ten seconds to go and I called timeout. It was Fontbonne’s ball. I said “look, you will never, ever be in a position to score 200 again. When this ball comes inbounds, I want you to try and get a steal. If you don’t get the steal, I want you to foul because I want you to give yourself the chance to get 200.” In other words, this was not exactly Troy State vs. DeVry; this was just a once-in-a-lifetime chance against a decent opponent. Greenville fouled Fontbonne on the inbound, got the ball back, and the rest is history:
Look at how the scoreboard literally cannot register 200 points! When Troy hit 200 in 1992 against DeVry, theirs did the same:
Greenville, for one special night, broke basketball as we know it. Regardless of how you may feel about it, it’s paid off massively in exposure for Barber and his program. “Everywhere I went after that game, from the Final Four to the NCAA recruiting conference, that was a super conversation piece. I had friends from all over the US reconnect with me because they saw that. I knew not everybody would go for it, but it’s a pretty interesting thing. I just wanted to see how fast this car could go.” Breaking records, and breaking basketball, seems like a heck of a lot of fun to do.
Barber knows that what he does isn’t popular. He even pinpointed why small colleges across America aren’t attempting to copy this system: “the all-important emphasis that our culture places on the win.” Because of this, he argues, coaches and programs are limited in how risky, creative, or innovative they may be. At a place like Greenville, however, there’s no real risk. “We are fifth from the bottom out of 423 schools in Division III in operating budget,” notes Barber. “We’re fifth from the top in roster size!” You have to have a special brain, a special place, and a special mindset to do this. Luckily for all of us, George Barber and Greenville have volunteered, and they’ve aced the test with flying colors.