Prairie Wolves learning as they go

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Nebraska Wesleyan coach Dale Wellman instructs Deion Wells-Ross during last weekend's regional games at Washington U.
Photo by NWU Sports Information

By Nathan Ford

Nebraska Wesleyan logo Class starts at 6:15 a.m. and you should come prepared. Hydration is key. Make sure you get plenty of sleep. Bring proper shoes and attire.

And freshmen: Be ready for a completely different challenge than anything you studied in high school.

This is Advanced Physical Conditioning, a pass/fail class at Nebraska Wesleyan University. It's part of the Health and Human Performance curriculum and, if you’re on the men’s basketball team, head coach Dale Wellman will make sure you’re signed up each fall semester for this course, two sessions a week for eight weeks.

“Not our favorite thing to do,” said junior forward Cooper Cook. “But we get through it together and it obviously prepares us well and gets us in good shape.”

The Prairie Wolves were mighty prepared this year and are plenty talented to go with it. The 26-3 Iowa Intercollegiate Athletic Conference champions blasted Maryville (94-70) and Aurora (82-61) in the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament and head back on the road to face No. 8 UW-Platteville in the Sweet 16 at 7:30 p.m. CT Friday.

Cook is the second-leading scorer, averaging 16.4 points per game and shooting 40.6 percent from three-point range. Newcomers to conditioning class can learn all about the “Freshman 15” from him – the change in weight that greets many a new college student as they are suddenly given the freedom to not manage their diet or workout habits.

Except this “Freshman 15” isn’t like most.

“I probably lost 10 pounds, at least, my freshman year from conditioning,” Cook said. “It definitely helped prepare me and got me used to the system and pace.”

That’s the idea. When basketball practice starts, Wellman doesn’t have to spend time directing his team to run lines. It’s all basketball.

You know running is part of basketball. At NWU, it’s a major part. The Prairie Wolves are averaging nearly 88 possessions per game this season. Their 95.6 points per game ranks eighth nationally.

“Our big thing is we want to play fast,” Wellman said. “We like to pass, but we don’t want to overpass. We want to shoot the basketball before we turn it over. I’d be happy if we came down and just threw one or two passes every single time, if we’re able to get a good, quick look.”

Everyone runs, and everyone shoots in an up-tempo Princeton offense that revolves around cutting and passing with purpose.

Cook is one of six players averaging double figures for Wesleyan. Ryan Garver is another. Garver was named co-MVP of the Iowa Conference a year after Cook earned player of the year honors. A year before that, Trey Bardsley was named MVP in NWU’s last year in the NAIA Great Plains Athletic Conference.

“Our guys truly like to play with each other,” Wellman said. “No one guy is going out there looking for all the glory.”

Garver is the shining example of that balance. The 6-2 junior has gone from reserve contributor his first two seasons to averaging 14.3 points, 5.4 rebounds and 4.7 assists this winter. His 3-point shooting (29 of 58) has improved dramatically thanks to work in the summer, making an already excellent driver even tougher to guard.

But defense is where Garver, a hometown kid who went to Lincoln Northeast, has always excelled. He’s racked up 72 steals so far this season and was also named IIAC Defensive Player of the Year.

“My dad always told me I’ve got to read where people are going,” Garver said. “It’s just reading what the offense is trying to do and then trying to attack the point where the ball is going before it can get there.”

“Every day in practice he’s not on your team, Cook said, “it’s frustrating, because he always seems to be getting a hand on the ball or getting steals.

Garver is so good at reading opposing offenses that Wellman and his staff have altered their defensive philosophy when he is in the game. Those exceptions are called the “Garver Rules.”

“We have rules in our shell and rules in our zone, and sometimes Ryan does his own thing a little bit,” Wellman said. “We probably give him a little longer leash to do those things because of what we know he’s capable of doing on defense that we would not allow other guys on our team to do.”

Joining Garver and Cook in the starting five are Nate Schimonitz, who has returned from an early-season knee injury to lead the team in scoring (16.9), Jack Hiller (12.9 points per game) and Deion Wells-Ross (12.2 points, 9.0 rebounds per game). Nate Bahe started when Schimonitz was out and is averaging 10.1 points.
They’re all returners from last year’s 18-8 team that stumbled in the IIAC semifinals and missed out on the NCAA tournament. A lot about that 2016-17 team screamed “new” – from the full-time move to Division III and the IIAC to three freshmen (Schimonitz, Hiller and Dylan Dirks) and a sophomore (Cook) starting and Wells-Ross transferring in from Midland University, an NAIA program.

This was pegged as a year to continue rising. But with the third-weakest non-conference strength of schedule in Division III, NWU didn’t crack the top 25 throughout the regular season. Wellman made sure winning the conference tournament was a priority.

“I think there’s just a different vibe among everyone this year,” Cook said. “Last year it was the first year in the IIAC and it was new, we played a lot of freshmen and the postseason was a brand new thing. This year, we were just a lot more loose and easygoing about it.”

That mindset has merged with the team’s system to make any deficit or adversity less difficult to overcome in games with major stakes. Like last Saturday, when NWU led Aurora just 28-24 at halftime as the Spartans sought another upset. The Prairie Wolves scored 54 points in a dominant second half.

“I think if you look at a lot of our big runs this year, a lot of them happen in the second half when we’re hitting that second wind,” Garver said. “Other teams aren’t as much.”

Obviously the games only get tougher from here. Wellman said NWU’s only goal this year has been to accomplish “something special.”

“Something special, a lot of times, is something you haven’t done before,” Wellman said.

Check off an IIAC tournament title.

What else is there? A program that has been to five Division III national semifinals and was runner-up in 1997 wants to announce itself on a national stage again.

“I’m not sure the majority of Division III basketball on the east coast, in the northeast, probably is as familiar with Nebraska Wesleyan,” Wellman said. “It was one of those things, we talked about, as a team, getting respect in the IIAC, we talked about getting regional respect, and then we talked about getting national respect and we’re going to have to win some basketball games to do that. We used that as motivation this year.

“We wanted to go out there and make sure people knew that we were a good basketball program, one on the rise that can compete with anyone.”

If the wins keep coming, Nebraska Wesleyan could be conditioned as a program that competes nationally. It will take, in part, a few painful early mornings of higher learning to get there.

“Some days it was like my legs didn’t work,” Garver recalled of his first semester in conditioning class at NWU. “It pays off in the end.”