Nebraska Wesleyan’s strange, massively successful Princeton deviant
Like the other two towns in this series, perhaps Lincoln, Nebraska isn’t the first place you’d think of for quick, fun basketball. Your immediate thought likely goes to the University of Nebraska, which has never won an NCAA Tournament game and has finished in the top 50 of Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted offense rankings twice in 20 years. Maybe you think of Creighton next, which is in Omaha, which is not Lincoln. Maybe even Nebraska-Omaha, which, yes, is in Omaha. Unless you’re paying close attention, Lincoln doesn’t really light up your brain’s map for quality basketball.
For those that do pay close attention, the next thousand words or so won’t be a surprise. For those that don’t, here’s your introduction to a mutated, bizarro-world version of the famed Princeton offense. Welcome to Nebraska Wesleyan, a Division III college of 2,100 students on the northeast side of Lincoln:
Nebraska Wesleyan is home to this wild offense, but the story goes deeper than that. It is home to the 2018 Division III national championship, a 57-5 record over the last two seasons, and three straight conference championships. It is a program built on freedom, fearlessness, and a freakish version of an offense beloved by many. The Prairie Wolves are built on a sports theory proven true many times over: to win in an unusual place, you have to play an unusual way. That, they do:
Nebraska Wesleyan didn’t run out a lineup with a player taller than 6’7″. It plays its typical centers on the perimeter and runs sets with them as guards. If they run post-ups, there’s a better chance a 6’3″ guard posts up than the 6’7″ center. Their brand of calm, measured play relies on a series of weird, irrational choices meant to produce hyper-efficient results and wins upon wins. It is unlike any other offense you’ll see in college basketball.
The architect of this weirdness attending college in Tennessee just makes me like it that much more. Dale Wellman, head coach of the Nebraska Wesleyan Prairie Wolves, is a builder. Prior to his time at Nebraska Wesleyan, he coached Alfred (NY), a D-III college of 2,300 in a town of 4,100. The season before Wellman was hired, the team went 3-22. Just twice in the 2000s had they finished above .500. By Wellman’s sixth season, he’d increased their win total to 18, their most wins in a season in 15 years. Then, Nebraska Wesleyan plucked him away. It didn’t require such a massive rebuild – Wesleyan had won double-digit games in all but one season since 1981 – but they weren’t the program they’d been in the past. Wellman’s system took the program to 22 wins in 2015-16 (their most in 18 years), and then, miraculously, a Division III title in year four. It’s simple: push the pace, and you get good results:
However, don’t mistake Nebraska Wesleyan, and Wellman, for the average up-tempo offense. “The best way to describe it is we want to play fast, but we want to let our guys have a lot of freedom within the structure of Princeton,” Wellman tells me over the phone. Nebraska Wesleyan, a small school in a town with a giant school overshadowing it, seems like a fine home to grow this structured insanity. “If I say I want to play fast and I set rules, rules, and rules, we’re not going to have freedom. We have to let our guys play free so they can also play fast,” says Wellman.
All of this may not be terribly surprising if you follow the track of Wellman’s career. Wellman’s biggest influence is Jeff Neubauer (formerly Eastern Kentucky, now Fordham head coach) who Wellman was an assistant for at Eastern Kentucky. “We ran true 2-guard stuff that he learned with John Beilein at West Virginia, but he ran it a little differently with a Princeton influence. That’s where I really picked up the Princeton offense,” notes Wellman. All good and well, of course, until you remember John Beilein’s offenses famously bled the clock as much as possible. If you squint hard enough, this does look like a whacked-out version of the last several Michigan teams:
What makes this version of Princeton unusual is that Wellman’s only really using one part of Princeton: the Point series. (This video does a great job at breaking down the basic looks of it, as does Jordan Sperber’s look at it from 2017-18.) “[90% of what we do] is the Point series of Princeton. We use the nuts and bolts of Princeton and try to get really good at a few aspects of it rather than everything,” says Wellman. This can come by any number of looks, whether it’s a simple spot-up on the perimeter:
A cut to the rim off of a screen:
Or a hand-off into an open look for a 38% three-point shooter:
The problem with defending it, as it is with every other team in this post, is that Nebraska Wesleyan’s entire rotation can shoot the basketball. Nine players made ten or more threes last season, and the lone rotation player who didn’t (Austin Hall) still made three of his seven attempts. “I’m in a fortunate situation here that maybe not all D3s are in, in that I can be a little picky with my recruiting. We try to only recruit guys that can shoot from the perimeter,” says Wellman. As for why it’s this specific high-speed version that’s his proper solution? “If I’m getting better players and we’re more efficient offensively, I want to have as many possessions in the game as possible to take advantage of that,” he notes.
The Prairie Wolves offer an immense amount of positives, to the point that the team shooting 40.6% from three almost feels like an afterthought. They were ruthlessly efficient at the rim this year, making an insane 69.8% of all layup/dunk/tip attempts. Only three Division I NCAA Tournament teams matched the Prairie Wolves in taking more than 40% of overall attempts and converting 67% or more of said attempts: Gonzaga, Duke, and Belmont. It took the worst-possible shooting performance for the Prairie Wolves to leave the D-III Tournament early this year, but it was as rare an outing as you can imagine. On the average night, this team gets a ton of layups off of easy looks, plenty of threes, and generally overwhelms the opponent before they even know what’s happening:
When I told Wellman of his team’s incredible shot selection – 85.3% of all shots were layups, dunks, or threes, with 41.7% of all shots coming at the rim – he credited it to the system. “It draws the typical 5-man away from the hoop. We put him at the pinch post, in the elbow, and extend it almost to the three-point line,” he says. When you’re able to have five shooters in every single lineup, it pushes spacing to the max and forces less agile defenders to make a calculation on every single possession. Do you pursue all the way out to the three-point line and get blown by to the rim? Or, alternately, do you stay back and get burned by any number of the Prairie Wolves’ excellent shooters? Worse yet, do you give up on defensive rebounding entirely, out of fear of something like this happening?
“We have a phrase, I think from Duggar [Baucom, formerly of VMI], that says he wants his players to shoot it before they turn it over,” Wellman notes. That’s a worthy goal, especially for a developer like Wellman. Princeton, in itself, is a difficult offense to learn everything about. Picking one specific series and using and abusing it until you know it like the back of your hand is a more attainable goal. “Because of the personnel and emphasizing a few different things within that Princeton look, we are able to keep tweaking and changing,” says Wellman.
What Wellman has done in five years is, for lack of a better word, stunning. Any two-year stretch of 57 wins is very impressive; doing it at a school with zero postseason tournament appearances in the 12 seasons before he started is a miracle. These results start with giving players the confidence they need to take the shots and create the looks that make Nebraska Wesleyan a terrifying offense. I’ll let Wellman take the floor: “We think about getting a shot every time down, especially for freshmen that come into the program. At first, they won’t take it. In practice, I’ll blow the whistle, and it’s almost the opposite of what they’ve heard in high school. ‘You have to take that shot. I’m upset because you didn’t take that shot.’ Sometimes, people will talk to me and say ‘well, you can get a better shot later in the shot clock.’ For us, you can’t get that look later on because that’s a shot seven seconds into your offense. You can’t get a seven-second shot 15 seconds later.” Princeton on steroids.
Wellman, for all of his talk against rules, does have one: if you’re open, take it. “If you can get it off [without altering the shot], I’ll never say anything to you. If you have to alter it in any way, then I’ll say something, but if you can catch it and take an unaltered three-point shot, you’re open. I’m fine with it. That’s part of the freedom that I have to give my guys,” he says.
This year will be Wellman’s sixth in Lincoln. Across town, a new guy will be taking over at the big school, a famous guy you’ve probably heard of. He’s well-known for having fast, high-flying collegiate offenses. However, like Wellman, he’s a developer and a builder. In the meantime, Lincoln residents need to head to the northeast side of town and see a mutated, ruthless offense take the court. Coaches do, too. If Wellman gets his wish – a season in which he doesn’t have four of his top six players miss games due to injuries – you could be in for something even more special than usual.