COLLEGE PLACE — There’s one thing Walla Walla University men’s basketball coach Gerry Larson is sure of six games into the season: "Our goal is to be one of the four teams that qualify for the NAIA independent postseason tournament."
An aggressive schedule, with two-thirds of the Wolves’ games on the road against tough competition, will be a big aid to that goal.
But just how the young WWU squad will play those games is still up in the air as the Wolves evaluate their new talent and decide whether to run-and-gun or slow the tempo down.
"I think at this point our biggest issue is, we need to arrive at our identity as a team," Larson said. "Do we take advantage of our quickness, or slow it down and save our best offensive players and let them play more offensively. That’s the biggest question for this group, and I think we’re arriving at that. But we’re having success at both styles."
The Wolves ran the floor in a 103-102 victory over Northwest Christian on Nov. 3, and then slowed it down for a 78-76 victory over Montana Tech on Nov. 6.
"There’s not one way that is better or one way that’s worse," Larson said. "With so many new players, it’s taking awhile to find what the best way to be successful is going to be."
The 12-man WWU roster has four freshman on it, as well as several other new faces.
The Wolves also have a handful of additional reserves that compete each week for a roster spot.
This season’s starting floor general is 6-foot-1 junior point guard Gerard Dauphin.
"He’s a very athletic, intense player," Larson said. "He’s very physical for his size. He helps us out with his defensive intensity, and is one of our leading rebounders."
Dauphin is relieved by one of the WWU freshmen, Michael Sprenger, a 6-footer out of Cheney High.
"Mike’s going to be a good all-around guy for us," Larson said. "He comes off the bench with Gerard starting, and he’s definitely all about the system. He wants to be a leader on the floor, and is one of the freshmen I’m really excited about."
Mark Moore is battling knee injuries, but brings his outside shooting prowess to the Wolves’ court.
"His major contribution to our success on the court is his outside shooting ability," Larson said, which is close to 50 percent from beyond the 3-point arc.
Jonny Long is a four-year Wolves player who brings more than basketball skills to the floor.
"Jonny’s a great student-athlete in all aspects and is a good leader," Larson said. "He’s great in the classroom and helps when we have recruits on campus. He’s always a big help."
Long scored 28 points and hit the game-winning bucket to beat NW Christian.
"He’s had a real positive impact on our program during his career here," Larson said.
Marc Gupilan is a 6-foot junior transfer from the University of Great Falls.
"Marc’s a strong kid and handles the ball pretty decently," Larson said. "He’s a physical defender."
Tucker Urdahl is another newcomer who has returned to school to finish an education degree. He played baseball at Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s, Larson said, but never completed his degree.
"He’s a guy that’s been a Division 1 athlete and he brings us a little life perspective," Larson said of the 6-1 guard. "He’s an extra coach, and a good guy to have around. And he’s a great outside shooter."
Joshua Henderson is a 6-2 senior guard who, along with 6-6 center Marcus Ray Johnson, may miss the season with injuries.
"Josh has got a decision to make, either play or red shirt," Larson said. "He’s in his third year with our program, is a good outside shooter and pretty intense player. He helps with our depth and ability to pressure teams offensively, he’s a really good shooter. We’re really hoping Josh comes around."
Johnson has been battling a foot injury that is limiting his playing time and may end his season.
"He’s got potential in the post," Larson said. "When he’s at full strength he’s very imposing. He doesn’t mind rolling up his sleaves and going to it."
The other three freshman include 6-2 guard Tristan Greenidge, 6-6 forward Ryan Spady and 6-3 forward Terrance Talton.
Spady and Talton share time inside, Larson said, while Greenidge is noted for his defense and shooting.
"We’re real excited about (Spady)," Larson said. "He’s one guy on the team that’s shown the willingness and ability to mix it up under (the basket). He had a great game (against Eastern Oregon on Nov. 12) on the boards (7) with his hustle. We’re very happy with the group of freshmen we have, and he’s one of them."
Talton "is very athletic, and has a lot of fire in his belly," Larson said. "Sometimes that’s a great thing, and sometimes that’s a difficult thing to harness. He’s probably our most explosive athlete. He can rebound above the rim and block shots.
"One of our problems early this season is our youth in the post," he said. "They’re going up against more experienced and bigger guys. Ryan and Terrance, as they mature as players — we’re going to get better because of that."
Greenidge is "a guy we look to over the next few years that’ll make a difference in our program," Larson said. "He’s a pretty nice shooter, and his shots will fall as he gets more comfortable. He’s got a lot of skills."
Tristan Edwards is a 6-3 senior forward who has seen time in the post rotation.
"He does a great job for us in the post. He’s going to be a key for us," Larson said. "He’s a good outside shooter, and can make their big guy defend him away from the basket where he (the defender) isn’t comfortable."
One hit to the Wolves’ squad this season, but one that will help in the future, is the red-shirting of Andrew Bailey. The 6-4 forward was WWU’s starting post player last year, and when he returns next season "he’ll combine with this year’s freshmen and really help our program."
The uncertainty of Henderson and Johnson for the rest of the season is eased a bit by the presence of five reserves — 5-11 freshman guard Teddy Alemu, 6-1 sophomore guard Taylor Lewis, 6-2 freshman forward Brandon Mills, 6-foot sophomore guard Jordan Stimmel and 6-2 freshman forward Sedric Veal.
"Those guys compete for a uniform every week," Larson said. "It allows us to keep more guys involved, and it’s helping us a little bit with injuries. Kids get to suit up who would otherwise be cut."
The Wolves are elibible for the NAIA postseason as well as academic and athletic awards for the first time after serving the mandatory NAIA probation season last year. As a member of the NAIA’s Association of Independent Institutions (AII), WWU is among 13 schools that will have four teams selected for a postseason tourney in Denver. The winner of that goes to the NAIA national tournament.
"This is a huge step up from where we were two years ago," Larson said of the NAIA membership. "It’s a much more reputable opportunity for these guys to play college athletics compared to what we’ve been doing in the past."
And the Wolves’ tough schedule will help their power rankings, which helps decide which four teams advance to the AII tournament.
"We’re excited about where we’re going as a program," Larson said.