This article was in the NYT back in 2004:
''Circus Comes to Knox,'' read a recent headline in the sports section of The Galesburg Register-Mail. ''Fasten your seat belts,'' the article began, ''college basketball's biggest thrill ride is coming to town.''
There was no slew of midgets -- or, in this case, 6-footers -- spilling unaccountably out of a backfiring motorcar; there were no Keystone Kops-like characters chasing each other around the hippodrome; there were no jugglers with a half-dozen balls filling the air -- it only seemed that way.
The Grinnell College Pioneers are the most high-tailing, high-scoring men's basketball team in the N.C.A.A. this season. They start five players and have only five players on the court at any given time, but -- like when they recently played at Knox College -- it often looks as if there are many more. They are scoring 128.9 points a game with about 100 field-goal attempts, including better than 63 3-pointers. Two seasons ago, they set the N.C.A.A. record for most points averaged in a season, at 124.9.
The Pioneers even set scoring records when losing, like the N.C.A.A. record, 149, in a game in 1994 in which Illinois College scored 157 (the most that college ever scored).
But Division III Grinnell has won the Midwest Conference championship three times in the last seven years. This season, Grinnell started 13-0 and was in first place in the conference (Knox was 7-5) before losing back-to-back conference road games last weekend at Carroll College, 134-129, and at Lawrence, 125-111.
Grinnell frequently substitutes in three waves of five -- like hockey shifts. The players press and hound the other team with such ferocity, they race the ball upcourt with such alacrity and fire mostly 3-point shots so swiftly, giving the sense that there are a half-dozen balls in the game, that sometimes it must appear to the opponent as well as the fans that all 16 Grinnell players are playing at once.
At every whistle, or dead ball, after 35 seconds -- the length of a shot clock in men's college basketball -- five new players are amassed at the scorer's table, ready to plunge into the game. Everything moves at such a rapid pace that referees have sometimes had to grab Pioneer players by the jersey as they raced onto the court to check their numbers with the official scorer.
Terry Glasgow, the coach of a conference rival, Monmouth College, has been quoted as saying that Grinnell ''makes a travesty of the game.'' He laughed when asked about that in a recent phone interview. ''Well, it is way out of the tradition,'' he said. ''To beat 'em, you have to adjust to that tempo.''
Tim Heimann, the Knox coach, said: ''They're the most refreshing thing to happen to basketball in my lifetime. I travel to see them play when I have a chance. But I hate playing them. Everybody does.''
Yet, wherever they play, crowds stream in to see the circus. ''We always double our attendance when Grinnell plays here,'' Heimann said. And on the recent night when the Pioneers visited Memorial Gym on the Knox campus, an estimated 800 fans showed up, as opposed to the usual 400.
And they see a show: it's as though the Grinnell players can't wait to get their hands on the ball. And indeed they can't. And the coach doesn't want them to wait, either.
''I guess I'm about the only coach in basketball who screams only one thing at his players: 'Shoot more!' '' said David Arseneault, the tall (6 feet 3 inches), broad, balding, 50-year-old genius of this curious system.
Arseneault, in his 15th season and a three-time Midwest Conference coach of the year, normally sits at the rear of the bench, at a distance from the rush of traffic of his players. ''Some gyms get so hot that the only breeze is from opening and closing of the door at the back of the gym,'' he said. ''So that's where I sit.'' He smiles at this, for there is invariably a rhyme and reason to his scheme, a method to his madness.
He explained the team's style of play. ''We're trying to perfect chaos,'' he said. ''We have fun. It's almost a lost art in sports.''
On offense, Arseneault's theory is that if you can hoist more 3's than the other team -- and hit a decent percentage -- then you can beat them if they shoot mostly 2's. Grinnell players may even let a 2-point shot by the opposition go uncontested, because they don't want the other team to stall or take the 3; that would disrupt their manic flow and puncture their strategy.
There is more to the Pioneers' unorthodox defense. They never run back to their end of the court after the other team snares a defensive rebound, or when it takes the ball out of bounds after a basket. They press every single time, all over the court, double- and triple-teaming the player with the ball, even when the other team has moved the ball into its halfcourt.
That is one reason they substitute so frequently. ''After about a minute of this, you're tired,'' said Steve Wood, a 6-2 senior point guard, the conference's player of the year last season. He is the team's high scorer at 28.1 points a game even though he only averages, like the others, 20 minutes of the 40-minute game.
This style of play was arrived at by trial and error. Mostly, error. The Grinnell teams that Arseneault inherited when he took the job in 1989 were terrible. They had won only four games in the previous three seasons. And they didn't improve appreciably under Arseneault, who played -- conventionally -- at Colby College in Maine.
''Well, we weren't winning, and the morale was awful,'' Arseneault said. ''And then we were playing mostly eight or nine guys. The rest of the players were unhappy not playing. Remember, these are high achievers in about everything they do.''
Grinnell, a liberal arts college with 1,400 students in a small, tree-lined central Iowa town, ranks among the best academic institutions in the country, often considered in the same breath with Stanford, Duke, Vanderbilt and Northwestern. ''So the players who weren't playing generally quit the team after a while,'' he added. ''In the last part of the season, we wouldn't have enough players to scrimmage.''
In time, Arseneault thought to solve the problems by using a system that he had seen another coach use when he was coaching at the University of Guelph in Ontario. That coach had used two sets of five players and played them for about four minutes at a time.
''I was impressed with how synchronized the two groups were,'' Arseneault said. ''I thought, if you can get 15 players of at least close to similar ability, you can use them all on a regular, rotating basis, and in shorter spurts.''
He added that a number of his players might not even make other teams in the Midwest Conference, but if they could hustle, shoot 3's adequately, he might have something. And he does.
The fortunes of the Grinnell Pioneers began to change. Happiness began to reign, and games began to be won.
''Because everyone plays, we're more of a team than other teams,'' Wood said. ''There are some negatives. I'm frustrated when I feel I'm going good and then have to come out of a game after 45 seconds. But then, I'll be back in in about another minute and a half.''
Paul Nordlund, a 6-8 sophomore, has realized his dream -- of being a virtual point guard. But then almost all the players play virtual point guard. Most of the players are listed as guard in the program, with a few forwards. There is no center.
''This is the best time I've ever had playing basketball,'' Nordlund said. ''There's great camaraderie because everyone plays, and plays about equal time. And personally, in most instances I'd be posting up inside. But here I can run and gun. It's great.''
Nordlund and his brother, Steve, a senior, are from Madison, Wis. ''I was home over Christmas and saw a Wisconsin-Marquette game,'' he said. ''Two halfcourt offenses. It looked like the game was played in slow-motion. The final score was something like 56-55 -- and that was with overtime.''
The practices are unconventional as well. No scrimmage, just shooting 3-pointers. ''Don't want to wear out their legs for the games,'' Arseneault said.
Indeed, the team tires others. Even referees. In one game, the two officials told the coaches at halftime that that they could not run like that and would be stationed at either end of the court. Another time, Arseneault discovered an official sitting in the shower after the game, so tuckered out he could barely speak.
The game against Knox was typical. The lead changed hands several times in the first half, Knox had some success in breaking the press with full-court baseball passes, and then stalling some in halfcourt to keep Grinnell from running -- which, particularly on days that Grinnell's shots aren't dropping, is how they manage to lose. But in the second half, Knox began to flag under the Grinnell pressure, which is what often happens to Grinnell opponents, and had trouble knowing whom to guard as the Grinnell substitutions came in disconcerting swift surges.
The Pioneers made a run, and then another, with typical pressured steals -- Knox committed 24 turnovers to Grinnell's 7 -- and long-range hoops, and won going away, 98-86. This even though Knox shot 60 percent, on 55 shots, from the field to Grinnell's 43 percent on 74 shots. Grinnell made 17 3-pointers to 6 for Knox. It was the first and only time this season that Grinnell failed to score 100 points.
Afterward, Knox's 5-6 senior point guard, Chris Heimann, the coach's son, his gold home jersey dark with sweat after having played most of the frenetic game, was asked how he felt.
''Exhausted,'' he said.
Then that circus troupe in sneakers packed its bags and left town, setting its sights on its next high-scoring, high-wired game.