For a team with four of its five starters from a year ago returning, there's still some unknowns for the Dakota Wesleyan University men's basketball program entering the 2021-22 season.
Among those primary questions: just how good can the Tigers be this year?
DWU is coming off a 19-8 season, its first season since 2015 that the team didn’t qualify for the NAIA national tournament. If not for the COVID-19 pandemic and the NAIA reducing the number of teams from 64 to 48, Dakota Wesleyan likely would have qualified. The Tigers approach their opening night Wednesday against Dakota State with similar faces and a new point guard manning the ship.
Starting forward Koln Oppold returns for his senior year, coming off a first-team all-conference honor. The 6-foot-4 Oppold averaged a career-high 13.7 points per game last season, along with 8.2 rebounds. Mason Larson, who recorded 36 blocks and 21 steals last season, Jeffrey Schuch, who shot nearly 44 percent from 3-point territory, and Ace Zorr, who shot 62 percent from the field, all return for the Tigers.
Head coach Matt Wilber said his team has looked energetic since they began practice on Sept. 27, but wants to see in-game action to determine what the ceiling of this team will actually look like.
“I’ve really been encouraged by our attitude in practice and how our guys have come with good juice in their efforts to get better,” DWU head coach Matt Wilber said. “I think our guys offensively understand what we want to do and what we want to be. They’re trying to execute it but we need game reps against outside competition to see where we’re at. I’ve got unanswered questions of how that’s going to look but I appreciate our guys trying and striving for what we want to get done.”
DWU will be without starting point guard Nick Harden due to graduation. Harden, along with Oppold were named all-Great Plains Athletic Conference first-team selections last season. Harden averaged 17.8 points, 4.3 assists and 1.5 steals per game and Wilber said his presence will be hard to replace.
“It’s going to be hard,” Wilber said. “Nick was such a dynamic player. Offensively, he averaged 18 points for us, but defensively, Nick was capable of erasing the other teams best guard on most nights. It’s hard to even put that on a guy every night but on most nights, his matchup was taken out of the game.”
Wilber said Sawyer Schultz will be a key player to watch this season for the Tigers, primarily at the point guard position. Schultz, an Emery native, has been coming off the bench his first two seasons with DWU, but is getting the opportunity he’s been building toward.
“A huge key for us will be Sawyer Schultz, who will be moving into a majorly expanded role within our offense and our defense,” Wilber said. “His first couple of years he’s been more of a player off the ball, because Nick was running the offense and a year before Ty Hoglund and Nick were the starting guards when he was a freshman. He’s going to be our point guard and that’s the most important piece to the puzzle with your offense.”
Schultz, who averaged 9.7 points in 35 minutes of action, will be in command of the Tigers offense that shot 35 percent as a team last season.
The NAIA has now caught up with NCAA men’s/international distance and pushed their three-point line back. The line was once at 20 feet and 9 inches from the center of the basket to the top of the key, but what the NCAA did in 2020-21 and now NAIA for the 2021-22, is now set the line at 22 feet, 1 ¾ inches.
With no player taller than 6-foot-8, DWU will focus on working the ball inside and taking open outside shots, and while Wilber said it’s going to be different with the new distance, the team will still have to continue to make shots from the deeper line.
Dakota Wesleyan will host its first two games of the year — after Wednesday, they host Dickinson State on Saturday — and then will be on the road the entire month of November. Wilber said the team — which boasts six seniors — will be tested early and expectations will be raised throughout the season.
“We’re going to see what we’re made of,” Wilber said. “We start out with our first three GPAC games on the road, at Jamestown and Morningside and heading to our rival Mount Marty. As far as our expectations, every year is to be right in the mix and have a chance to win all of our games and that’s a day-to-day operation, but it all starts with the GPAC. If you’re good in the GPAC, you’re going to have a chance nationally.”
The Tigers open the season against Dakota State at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 27 in the Corn Palace.