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'Poetry in motion': Tigers stress controlling, distributing the basketball

Dakota Wesleyan University's Tyson Smiley fires a pass during a game against Dordt College on Nov. 15 at the Corn Palace. (Matt Gade / Republic)

The players come and go for the Dakota Wesleyan University men's basketball team, but one thing remains the same: the Tigers take care of the ball.

One season after losing its All-American point guard, DWU is still among the nation's leaders in terms of assist-to-turnover ratio. Through 11 games this season, the Tigers are second in the nation with a 1.71 assist-to-turnover ratio.

"That's something we harp on that a lot," DWU coach Matt Wilber said. "But that's a players deal. Coach can say don't turn it over all you want, but players have to execute that stuff."

The Tigers have executed at an extremely high level for the past five seasons. Since the 2013-14 season, DWU has been ranked in the top five nationally in NAIA Division II basketball in the assist-to-turnover ratio. The Tigers were first during the 2014-15, 2015-16 and 2016-17 seasons.

"With the way that we play, our offensive style is kind of everybody has an unselfish role—especially with this year," said Tate Martin, a former DWU point guard and current graduate assistant coach. "It's not any one player kind of dominating the ball and taking on those duties. It's just everybody gets each other shots and that's how we play. We have a motion-style offense and that's how we get guys shots."

Martin was instrumental in controlling the ball and dishing out assists during his DWU tenure. Martin finished as the school's all-time leader in assists (819) and had 237 turnovers in his four seasons running the motion offense, which emphasizes player and ball movement.

"That's the fun part about our offense is we have a coach who puts guys on the floor that he trusts to make the right play and we have got guys that trust each other," Martin said. "Our offense is all about trust and having guys on the floor that trust themselves to shoot the ball and trust each other to make the right plays. That's why we see a great success with our assist-to-turnover ratio is we have got guys that just trust each to make the right plays."

The Tigers have been making the right plays during Wilber's tenure. The season before Wilber's arrival in 2013-14, the Tigers were 88th out of 153 teams in assist-to-turnover ratio.

"The big focus is on the turnovers and our guys know that," Wilber said. "The goal is to get to that point where they are confident enough to make a play, but smart enough not to turn it over."

When Martin was running the point, the ball was in his hand's a majority of the time. But this season, the Tigers are playing through center Jason Spicer, who Wilber calls the best passing big man in the Great Plains Athletic Conference.

"I believe that and that makes him one of the best passing big men in the country," Wilber said. "We can run offensive plays and sets through him like you would maybe a point guard and it's coming from a different spot."

Spicer has dished out a team-high 53 assists, which is tied with Briar Cliff guard Erich Erdman for the most in the GPAC. Spicer said the Tigers aren't a great offensive rebounding team and don't emphasize getting steals, so they need to value the basketball in their offense.

"We don't get those extra possessions that other teams get," Spicer said. "For our offense to get to the point where it needs to be, we need to be able to protect the ball. Because we are not always going and actively trying to seek those on defense."

And when they are on offense, the Tigers emphasize making the simple play.

"We don't really like to hit home-run passes," DWU guard Ty Hoglund said. "We like to hit a whole bunch of singles and make the easy pass and then swinging the ball around once or twice. It gets us an easy look every time. So we just kind of focus on taking care of the ball and getting an easy shot every time."

When Spicer and Hoglund were recruited by Wilber, they recognized how controlling and sharing the ball was vital in the offense.

"I obviously knew right when I got on campus, that was an important thing in our offense and it is definitely stressed in everything we do," Spicer said.

Spicer was a member of the 2014-15 NAIA national runner-up team, which had 765 assists against 337 turnovers for an efficient 2.27 assist-to-turnover ratio.

"When I was getting recruited, it was that 2014-15 team when they would have 30 assists and two turnovers in a game. When you watched that kind of basketball, it is just poetry in motion," Hoglund said. "So when it all comes together, it is just fun to play with a group of guys that can take care of the ball."

The Tigers (7-4) host Doane University at 4 p.m. today at the Corn Palace, with the DWU and Doane women playing at 2 p.m.