Cooper Cook and his Nebraska Wesleyan men’s basketball teammates had plenty to celebrate last winter.
In their first year in the Iowa Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (IIAC), the Prairie Wolves shared the regular season title by going 18-8 overall and 11-5 in league play.
The 6-foot-5 Cook blossomed in Coach Dale Wellman’s wide-open style of play that averaged 93 points per game last year. Cook was at 18.5 points and 6.8 rebounds per outing, while knocking down a team-high 81 three-pointers (44 percent) and blocking a team-high 44 shots. As a sophomore a year ago, he earned IIAC Player of the Year honors and was named to numerous NCAA Division III district squads.
But Cook and the other Prairie Wolves, however, feel like there’s some unfinished business from a year ago. Their season ended unexpectedly at home in an 85-63 loss in the semifinals of the IIAC tournament, a setback that kept NWU out of the NCAA Division III national tournament.
“That was a tough way to go out,” said Cook, the son of former Lincoln Northeast and NWU standout Kevin Cook. The younger Cook played his high school basketball at Blue Valley North in Overland Park, Kansas, where he was an all-state player.
“We think about it all the time,” added Cook, a preseason Street & Smith and D3hoops.com NCAA Division III All-American. “We didn’t come out ready to play and we were flat. We learned a lot from that game and we’re determined not to let it happen again.”
With four starters and last year’s top six scorers back, NWU is the preseason pick of the coaches to win the conference title. Sophomore Nate Schimonitz, a first-team Super-Stater at Creighton Prep in 2016, averaged a team-high 19.1 points per game a year ago as a freshman while being a first-team all-conference pick. Like Cook, the 6-4 Schimonitz is an inside-outside threat.
Deion Wells-Ross, the team’s lone senior, was a second-team all-conference selection a year ago. The 6-4 Omaha Benson graduate averaged 12.7 per contest.
Not far behind were 6-6 sophomore Jack Hiller (9.4 points per game) and 6-2 junior Ryan Garver (9.2 ppg), a Lincoln Northeast product who Wellman thinks is one of the best defenders in the IIAC.
“I’m excited with what we return, but our players also have to realize that we’re going to be the hunted now instead of us being the hunter,” said Wellman, whose team buried 277 three-pointers last season. “Like we found out at the end of last year, this conference is very tough and you have to bring your 'A' game every single time out.”
Even though the Wolves are experienced, there are a couple of newcomers, such as 6-4 freshman Pete Ackerman (Lincoln East graduate) and 6-8 freshman Cade Roberts of Manhattan, Kansas, who are challenging for spots in the regular rotation.
“Our practices have been real competitive,” Cook said. “The returning guys have come in and picked up right where they left off, and we’ve got several freshmen who are making a push for playing time.”
NWU will have a home exhibition game Monday at Snyder Arena against Peru State at 8 p.m., a contest that will count on Peru State’s record. The Prairie Wolves open their season later next week with two games in the Twin Cities Classic — Friday at North Central University in Minneapolis, and Saturday at the University of Northwestern in St. Paul.