As the half-court heave sailed through the air, the entire stadium held its' breath to watch the shot bounce off the back of the rim and miss its' intended target. This is how the Dakota Wesleyan University men's basketball team's season ended a year ago. With that bitter taste in their mouth, the Tigers focus their attention on the details to return to the NAIA Division II Men's Basketball National Tournament for a sixth-straight year this season.
DWU boasted an overall record of 23-10 and a 13-7 conference record in 2018-19 which included four overtime contests and 10 games that were decided by four points or less. Of those 10 games, DWU won three and lost seven, including the second-round loss in the national tournament to top seeded Indiana Wesleyan University.
If anyone understands the importance of those games, it is head men's basketball coach Matt Wilber who enters his seventh season with the Tigers.
"It's really disappointing when you think back on those games because they are possession basketball games and you don't want to lose those," Wilber commented. "That's what basketball is all about. But you must change and you're hopeful that it is motivation for the guys coming back that they say, 'Hey, this won't happen again.'"
If there is a squad that comprehends how to learn from those games, it would be the 2019-20 team. After graduating one player, the roster includes four seniors, two juniors and a sophomore and freshman class that is loaded with talent. Of those returners are a pair of All-Americans in Ty Hoglund and Nick Harden and a senior class that has a surplus of experience.
"Every year is different," Wilber said. "We start over every year, and it would be easy to look back and see what happened every year. There are a lot of college programs that would take what we have done in a heartbeat. But our guys are not settling and are wanting to get better each season."
Hoglund completed another historic season in his junior campaign as he scored 840 points on the year and averaged 26.3 points per game, ranking fifth in both categories. In his career, Hoglund has accumulated 2,013 points, good for sixth in program history. The Dell Rapids, S.D., native also scored over 30 points in nine games and scored 40 points or more in five contests.
Joining Hoglund in the backcourt for another season is Harden who was tabbed to the All-American Honorable Mention list in his first season with DWU. He made his presence known immediately as he ranked fourth nationally with 80 steals on the season and seventh with 2.5 steals per game. Harden also led the team on the offensive side with 3.8 assists per game and finished second on the team with 17.5 points per game.
"Returning Nick and Ty is huge," Wilber mentioned. "In his second season, Nick can be a lot more comfortable in what he does and how he can be a leader. Ty has always been our energy guy for the past three years. Without him in the gym, things just aren't the same."
Complimenting Hoglund and Harden will be seniors Samuel McCloud, Collin Kramer and Tristan Teichmeier. McCloud and Kramer started nearly every game, while Teichmeier saw significant playing time all season. McCloud provides size and a shooting threat from outside as he stands six-foot-eight and shot 40 percent from 3-point range last season.
Kramer possesses a lot of similarities with McCloud as he is six-foot-seven and shot 34.3 percent from downtown last year. However, Kramer led the team with 6.2 rebounds per game and in blocks with 22 on the season. Teichmeier transferred to DWU last year and made an immediate impact as he led the Tigers by a wide margin with 65 offensive rebounds. Those rebounds usually resulted in a quick layup, or a trip to the free-throw line for Teichmeier as he finished with 58 made free throws, good for third on the team.
"When you have seniors, they just know a lot more due to experience," Wilber said. "These guys are competitive, tough and smart players. There are certain things you don't have to do as a coach when you have good leadership."
Looking to make an impact as they return for another season are Mason Larson, Koln Oppold and Tyson Smiley. Larson began to come into his own down the stretch last season after going 6-for-7 from 3-point range versus Northwestern College in the GPAC Tournament and finished 4-for-5 from beyond the arc against Indiana Wesleyan in the national tournament.
Oppold provided depth to the Tiger backcourt as he averaged 4.9 points per game and shot 38.6 percent from the field in his freshman season. Returning to the team for his junior season is Smiley who did not play the 2018-19 season. Two years ago, when he did play, Smiley started in 11 games, averaged 8.4 points and 4.6 rebounds per game and shot 56.4 percent from the field.
"This is a great group of guys," Wilber mentioned of this year's roster and senior class. "These guys on the court and off the court are good people. I really appreciate what these guys have done for Dakota Wesleyan and I think they have put themselves in a position to be successful."
With so many games decided by one or two possessions a season ago, this seasoned group of Tigers know they must focus on every possession throughout the season. Whether it is converting free throws in the closing minutes, coming up with a crucial stop on defense, or making a critical shot on the offensive end, DWU has experienced what it takes to come away victorious at the end of games.