MITCHELL, S.D. – For the second straight season, the Dakota Wesleyan University men's basketball team made a trip to the NAIA Division II Men's Basketball National Tournament in 2015-16, as the Tigers continued to build on recent success at the national level under fourth-year head coach Matt Wilber. The 2016-17 season marks the 100th in the history of Dakota Wesleyan University men's basketball, as the Tigers will honor great teams, players and coaches from the past throughout the season.
Last year's squad overcame the graduation of leading scorers from the 2015 national tournament, and injuries and youth were also challenges for the 2015-16 Tiger team. Led by now-graduated Tigers Trae Bergh and Jade Miller, DWU earned an at-large berth into the tournament, making it to the second round.
This year's squad will need to get past the loss of Bergh and Miller, but the Tigers have the nation's leader in assists back, as senior point guard Tate Martin(Mitchell, S.D.) assumes the spotlight for a young and talent-filled group.
"It is impossible to ask one of our guys to try to fill the production last year's seniors provided," Wilber said. "We want our guys to be the best versions of themselves and not try to be the same player as guys who came before them."
Martin tied the DWU single-season mark for assists with 227 in 2015-16, while leading the NAIA with 6.67 assists per game. Martin was also second in the NAIA in total assists and fifth in assist-to-turnover ratio at 3.54.
Martin has always been a great distributor for the Tigers, also leading the nation in assists per game as a freshman in 2013-14, but his junior season saw him establish a scoring game that had not been seen from the 5-foot-11 guard. As the Tigers needed to replace significant offense from the NAIA runner-up team in 2014-15, Martin took his scoring game to another level. Martin gave DWU a consistent offensive option, finishing third on the team with 14.8 points per game, making 49.4 percent of his field goals and hitting 60 shots from 3-point range. He scored north of 20 points on five occasions last season.
"Tate's development over his four years has been fun to be a part of," Wilber said. "He has continued to improve in all areas of our program and has emerged as a true leader. He is definitely in that small group of players who I trust completely with our program. He is our first four-year player here in my time, and it is difficult to think this is his senior year. Tate will continue to be the key facilitator on the offensive side, but he also needs to push our defense."
The Tigers return a pure scoring threat in the form of junior Trae Vandeberg (Madison, S.D.). One year after transferring from Wayne State College, Vandeberg now has a season at DWU under his belt and looks to take a step forward as a leader on this year's team. The 6-foot-3 guard averaged 11 points per game in his sophomore season and showed the Corn Crib Crazies glimpses of a game-changing scorer in the making. He shot 46.2 percent from the field and was third on the team with 68 made 3-pointers. Vandeberg also displayed his all-around game, finishing with 133 rebounds, third best for the Tigers a year ago.
The front court for the Tigers will need to replace the defensive and rebounding production of Terrell Newton, who returns to DWU as an assistant coach under Wilber in 2016-17. Players with experience up front include junior forward Jason Spicer (Sioux Falls, S.D.) and sophomore center Kellen Barden (Whitewood, S.D.). Both played significant minutes for the Tigers last year. Spicer averaged 4.8 points and 2.4 rebounds, while Barden, who started five games as a true freshman, showed his toughness under the basket.
"Martin will continue to be the strongest voice and leader this year along with new captain juniors Spicer and Vandeberg," Wilber said. "Both Spicer and Vandeberg have worked hard in the offseason and will be key pieces to any success we may have this year. It's always good to see when there is obvious growth, maturity and improvements when players move from underclassmen to upperclassmen. Both Trae and Jason have shown early on that those gains have been met."
After redshirting a year ago, guards Kaleb Johnson (Sioux Falls, S.D.) and Bret Mattice (Eden Valley, Minn.) each will take to the Corn Palace court for the first time in a Tiger uniform this season, adding depth to the DWU back court. Wilber sees both as providing additional scoring from the wing position.
Sophomore Aaron Ahmadu (Houston, Texas) dressed for the Tigers a year ago and saw limited minutes. The 5-foot-10 guard will have the opportunity to earn playing time in 2016-17. Junior Brandon Boggs (Sioux Falls, S.D.) will also look to earn playing time at the forward position after redshirting his first year with the team.
The Tigers will need to rely on several newcomers this season to add depth if the team hopes to make a return trip to Branson, Mo., for the national tournament. Wilber brought in a strong recruiting class, highlighted by Ty Hoglund (Dell Rapids, S.D.). Hoglund comes to DWU after winning the South Dakota Gatorade Player of the Year award and was a three-time All-State selection in his time at Dell Rapids High School. He averaged 26.5 points per game as a senior.
Freshman guard Nate Davis (Watertown, S.D.) will be counted on for production early in his Tiger career. Davis averaged 16 points and four assists for Watertown High School in his senior season, while earning two All-State selections. Freshman forward Collin Kramer (Volga, S.D.) brings a 6-foot-7 frame to the Tiger front court and figures to have a good chance at seeing early minutes with his size under the basket.
"In the past couple of years, we have added college transfers who have made immediate impacts," Wilber said. "This year our newcomers are true and redshirt freshmen. While that is a little scary, we are excited to see what some of these guys are capable of at the college level."
The recent success breeds expectations for the Tigers, but Wilber knows this group will need to come together quickly and mature as a team for DWU to end the year in the same place it has the last two.
"I have never been very interested in putting expectations or specific goals for our basketball team other than trying to keep the focus on the daily process of getting better," Wilber said. "Our group definitely wants to continue to move in the same direction as we have in the past couple of years, but we have more unanswered questions this year than any other."