Denair boys basketball team more comfortable in second year using unconventional offense

There is a sign outside the weight room used by the Denair boys basketball team that neatly summarizes Coach Edwin Santiago’s philosophy: “The weight room isn’t for everyone, but then again, neither is playing time or winning.”

Physical conditioning, stamina and strength are essential in the style of basketball demanded of his players by Santiago. It’s called the Grinnell system after the small college in Iowa where it was first developed many years ago. It’s not unlike the run-and-gun offense famously used by Paul Westhead at Loyola Marymount University in the early ’80s. Starters play as fast and as hard as they can for three or four minutes at a time, then are replaced by five new players – not unlike a line change in a hockey game. If the second team gives up six points, then the starters are re-inserted.

The Grinnell system makes for a frenetic and definitely non-traditional game, which Santiago admits can puzzle and even frustrate some players and fans.

“It’s entertaining, but it’s also challenging,” he said.

Santiago expects his players to shoot quickly on offense, within the first 12 seconds that they have the ball. Players reluctant to shoot will join Santiago on the bench.

“Our mentality is, ‘If you’re open for a shot, take it. If you’re not, drive to the basket.’ The last option is pass it,” he said. “That was hardest lesson to learn.”

The Coyotes seem to have gotten the idea. Through their first nine games this season, they have attempted about 40 shots a game, but Santiago would like to see that rise to 50. By comparison, the national average is about 28 shots in a 32-minute game.

All those shots lead to plenty of misses, so Santiago drills his players to aggressively pursue the rebound – hence, the need for strength built lifting weights. Denair averages 11 offensive rebounds a game, about twice the national average.

“The system is based on offensive rebounds,” Santiago explained. “We’re not expecting to make the first shot, but the second or third shot. From a slightly contested first shot, you get a calm, cool second or third shot. But if the team is not getting more offensive rebounds, they’re not going to be successful.”

Size is important when it comes to rebounding, but attitude and desire also play an important part. Santiago wants his players to outwork their opponents for rebounds, no matter how tall they are. That’s where the time spent in the weight room has paid off.

“If you’re going to offensive rebound, you better be strong,” Santiago said. “We work on positioning quite a bit in practice, more on the physicality part of it. … We’re not crybabies on fouls. We expect to be hit under the basket.”

So far, the uncommon style has served Denair well, despite a couple of lopsided losses. The Coyotes – who host Stone Ridge Christian on Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. – are 5-4 in their non-league schedule, a major improvement from the 3-23 record Denair posted last year in Santiago’s first season as coach.

Players like 6-foot-5 sophomore power forward Koby Cervantes (16.3 points and 7.8 rebounds per game), senior point guard and team captain Landon Borges (8.9 ppg, 2.5 assists per game) and 6-4 senior center Wyatt Barber (6.9 rpg) have adapted to Santiago’s system. They’re the leaders of a young squad that includes just three seniors.

Santiago said the unconventional system takes time for many players to become comfortable in – including the points system he uses to evaluate performance and determine playing time.

“You lose points for turnovers, but not for taking a shot,” Santiago said. “There’s not a shot I don’t like. Blocks, steals, deflections and defensive rebounds … they’re all ways to earn points.”

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