“I saw it and thought it was crazy and thought, ‘This is not basketball,’ and never thought I would see it ever again.” This was Lauren Stamatis’ initial thought when she first saw it in action. It, being “the system.”
“The system,” as it is commonly referred to as, is the scheme that the Olivet Nazarene Women’s Basketball team plays within. “The system,” or the descendants of it, were made famous by schools in California. Paul Westhead, who coached at the Loyola Marymount University (Calif.) from 1985-1990, is credited with the flashiest version of “the system.”
While at Loyola, Westhead implemented elements of the transition run and shoot offense, which places an emphasis on scoring as fast as possible, as often as possible and involves taking the fastest available shot. After Westhead’s stints at Loyola and in the NBA ended, other versions of “the system” materialized, including David Arsenault’s popular, modern version at Grinnell College (Iowa).
Stamatis learned about the system while playing college basketball at the University of Redlands (Calif.) from 1992-1995. Although the men’s team and not Stamatis’s team ran this scheme, she was well aware of its lethal capabilities. After wrapping up her playing career, she became a Graduate Assistant at Olivet Nazarene University (Illi.) where she was under the tutelage of Doug Porter.
Under Porter, she was able to fully grasp all of the elements of this style of play.
“He was the one I learned everything from and all the behind the scenes stuff,” she said.
Stamatis took over as head coach at ONU in 2012, but while she was still an assistant, then coach Doug Porter posed an interesting question to Stamatis — one that would have an impact on the rest of her career.
“He asked me, when I was an assistant, “would you run this [system] if you were a head coach?’,” she explained. “I said ‘I don’t know’.”
Stamatis’s team does run “the system” and they’re by far the most exciting team in all of NAIA-DII women’s basketball. They assemble more of a hockey team, at times, than a basketball team. They play all sixteen players relatively equal playing time, substitute five players at a time and full court press and trap the entire game. Because of these nontraditional elements “the system” requires, it is sometimes considered “not real basketball” from afar.
The five main principles are run, shoot, rebound, press and sub. The Tigers have the fastest pace in the country, out-shoot, out-rebound, out-press and certainly, out substitute everyone.
Stamatis handles all elements of “the system.” All except for the substitutions.
“Chase Deaton, he’s our graduate assistant, and he runs all of our substitutions and line changes, so we prescript that prior to the game and all of the girls know, so we literally have a chart that says time and each of their names in order of what position they’re playing,” she said.
Deaton can be seen sitting on the bench, clipboard and stopwatch in hand. He times each possession and every 30-35 seconds, shouts out five names for a new platoon of players to enter the game for the Tigers. The five players jump up, run to the scorer’s table and enter the game in waves. The mass substitution method allows the team to play their entire roster every game, keep players fresh and most importantly, run their blistering brand of basketball.
“Because it’s so fast-paced and because you’re only sitting for thirty second, to me, as long as you’re engaged when on the bench, if you’re cheering your teammates on, or talking to your shift and talking things out, you don’t really feel out of it,” Jayne Stuart said.
The Tigers’ unique style of play, which includes large quantities, limited “traditional” play sets, and non-stop running, allows them to practice for a less than traditional amount of time, too. The Tigers’ practices usually last forty-five minutes and don’t resemble normal college basketball practices.
“Before practice, we do a shoot around or individual work, then once practice starts we have a three-point drill,” Carlee Nicolas said. “It’s either 100 threes or five by ten threes and normally we go into a half-court, go through our options, then press offense and press defense.”
As far as traditional plays or a thick playbook goes, the Tigers don’t have them. Stamatis described their “plays” as five “quick hitters.”
“We have options,” Hengesbach said. “We’re always trying to attack first, but then within that, its not like we stand there and blankly stand in the half court.”
The idea of shorter practices, quick-shot mentalities and fifteen-girl rotations are certainly appealing for current players, as well as recruits.
“I think the thing about it is that there is structure where you do and don’t do, but there is freedom to use your skills, abilities and instincts and that’s what makes it really fun,” Stamatis said. “Who doesn’t want that? The coach is yelling at you for not shooting the ball. That’s fun.”
Opposing teams appear to despise playing against Olivet Nazarene because of their system. Olivet’s star player, Abbey Hengesbach, played against the Tigers at one time while at Concordia University (Mich.) and remembers how overwhelming it can all be.
“It’s horrible [playing against “the system”],”Hengesbach said. “I was in really good shape and it just wears on you. The first half isn’t as tough, but once you get into the second half, it just wears on you.”
For as many skeptics there are of “the system,” there are an equal number theories on how to slow them down. In the first round of the 2016 NAIA DII National Championship, Indiana East University played four players on offense, with one player dropped back on defense for the entire time.
As bizarre as that may seem, it’s far from the strangest strategy the Tigers have seen.
“They would throw it out of bounds and down the hallway to slow us down,” Stuart said of Ashford University’s strategy against them on November 4. “They would just chuck it. It was really frustrating.”
By far, the two biggest questions surrounding Olivet Nazarene’s style of play involves defense and whether a team with this style can win a championship.
The Tigers allow about 90 points per game, but average slightly more than 110 points per game. The fact that they allow such a high number of points draws skepticism, but Stamatis prefers to look at the idea of defense from a different perspective.
“It just depends on what you define as defense, a lot of teams define holding a team to 55 points as good defense,” she said. “For us, we’re forcing 33 turnovers [per game] and we’re coming out on top with points so it doesn’t matter.”
The Tigers even believe that defense is the basis for their success.
“We’re not going to grind and body up in the post, but we play 90 feet of defense and I don’t think any other team here, even at nationals, does that,” Hengesbach said. “You ask anyone on our team now, defense is what we pride ourselves on.”
The other looming question – whether a team that runs this obscure style of play can ever win a championship – is a lot trickier to answer.
“We’ve been doubted and I think we even doubted ourselves,” Stewart said. “But we started to believe that we could be a national championship team.”
Stamatis believes that some of the questions surrounding her team are, in part, because what they do is confusing and teams with this style have a lack of track record.
“Those people are looking at it from the standpoint of that your style of play is a cure-all and means you’re going to win the game. No, it’s always the talent, the personnel, how people play together and how well you execute within the style of play,” she said. “I think I can see people saying that, because how many teams have been to the national tournament running this style of play? I believe it’s just us.”
Stamatis and the Tigers still have quite the road in front of them if they want to capture a title. The first step, beating No. 3 seed Mount Marty (S.D.) in the quarterfinals Saturday night.
If the Tigers prove the skeptics wrong and win the national title, Stamatis won’t just be going home with a championship trophy.
“We had a joke this year [after beating Oklahoma Wesleyan and College of the Ozarks] that if we win a national championship that I’ll get a full tattoo arm sleeve,” Stamatis laughed. “They’re riding this and the rest of the year they’ve been chanting ‘Road to the Arm Sleeve.’”