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McCUTCHEON: Who saw this coming for the DWU men?

Four games into their conference season the Tiger men looked to be relegated to the league’s cellar.

In his first season as head coach for the Dakota Wesleyan University men’s basketball team, Matt Wilber saw his team drop to 0-4 in the Great Plains Athletic Conference on the heels of a five-game losing streak, which included a nonconference road loss to Johnson & Wales, which DWU demolished by 27 points less than a week prior at home.

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All the while, Wilber seemed encouraged with the team’s progress and knew the tough stretch was making his team stronger — even if the results didn’t show an imminant turnaround.

Fast forward six weeks.

DWU has won eight of its last nine games, including six of seven in the GPAC. The only loss for the Tigers over the stretch came on the road, in overtime, by four points to Northwestern College — a game the Tigers easily could have taken.

The Tigers (13-8, 6-5 GPAC), who were picked to finish ninth out of 11 teams in the conference prior to the start of the season, have climbed to sixth in the GPAC standings.

It always takes time for a team to buy what a new coach is selling, but keys to the change have included sharing the ball on offense, limiting turnovers and making plenty of 3-pointers.

Ball security is essential for any young team, and DWU is without a single senior on the floor. The Tigers have had to break in a new point guard, who is in charge of protecting the ball and putting his team the right positions.

The floor general is freshman Tate Martin, who returned to Mitchell where he played his high school basketball after a semester at the University of Mary in Bismarck, N.D.

After some early season peaks and valleys, Martin has established himself as one of the top facilitators in the conference. Martin ranks first nationally in the NAIA Division II with 6.842 assists per game.

As a team, the Tigers are sharing the basketball. DWU sits sixth in the NAIA with 381 assists this season. The team also has a 1.465 assist to turnover ratio, good enough for eight in the country.

The solid play from the point guard position has trickled down to the rest of the team, which looks to be gaining confidence each and every time out, especially with its outside shooting.

Over the last nine games, the Tigers are averaging 10.1 3-pointers per game. DWU ranks sixth in the country in total three-point field goals with 196 through 21 games. The team is averaging 9.3 made threes per game for the season.

Mitchell native Jade Miller and Corsica native Kris Menning and Trae Bergh, a Crooks native, have all established themselves as threats from behind the arc.

After making 10 3-pointers on opening night, Bergh has continued his sharp shooting. The sophomore is fifth in the country in total threes made this season with 70, and sits seventh in threes per game with an average of 3.3.

Miller has caught fire on a number of times this season, scoring 20 or more on five separate occasions. Menning has returned to the lineup after a preseason injury to his thumb to give the Tigers an additional scoring threat.

While DWU is never shy to put the ball up from deep, junior forward Jalen Voss leads the team in scoring with 20.5 points per game. Voss’ presence on the inside forces opposing defenses to collapse, opening additional opportunities for the Tigers’ sharpshooters from the perimeter.

Voss is the only legitimate threat on the inside for the Tigers.

Wilber said it is easy to look at the offense and say that’s where the turnaround has emerged from, but he feels his defense is the catalyst for all the recent positives the team has enjoyed.

The Tigers use speed and effort on the defensive end to make up for a lack of size and inside presence.

The effort these Tigers put forth on defense can be summed up with the team’s most recent victory over Briar Cliff University Wednesday at home. With less than 30 seconds to go, freshman Eric Warkenthien stepped on the court for the first time in the game and forced a Charger traveling violation to help ice the win.

The defense will be tested in the coming weeks, as the Tigers play their next four games against teams ahead of them in the GPAC standings, including a pair against Morningside College and a road matchup with No. 5 Dordt College.

The tough stretch will tip off against No. 10 Midland at 4 p.m. Sunday at the Corn Palace in Mitchell.

With rough waters on the horizon, DWU will need to continue to play a smart and efficient brand of basketball. The Tigers may finish in the middle of the conference pack, but after how the season started and where they were projected to finish, being average in the GPAC has to be considered a win for this young team.