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Chemistry the question for Blue Hawks men's basketball

When it comes to the Dickinson State basketball archives, head coach Justin Wetzel would normally prefer for the past to be the past. But this summer, just for clarity's sake, the coach exchanged his coaching whistle for his reading glasses and d...

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Dickinson State senior forward Gilberto Shojgreen Jr. dunks the ball Jan. 30 against Valley City State at Scott Gymnasium. (Press File Photo)

When it comes to the Dickinson State basketball archives, head coach Justin Wetzel would normally prefer for the past to be the past.

But this summer, just for clarity's sake, the coach exchanged his coaching whistle for his reading glasses and did some digging. What he found was a lot more losing than winning.

In roughly 92 seasons dating back to 1924, the Blue Hawks achieved a winning record in only 35 of those, and many of those winning seasons were floating right around .500.

One of those losing seasons was last year - a 12-16 mark that ended with a 93-74 loss to Jamestown in the opening round of the North Star Athletic Association playoffs.

But those 12 wins were a step up from the 11 from the year before and the seven the year before that.

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This season - which gets underway at 4 p.m. today against Yellowstone Christian in Billings, Mont. - Wetzel hopes the arc will follow the bouncing ball.

"We took a step forward. Now we have to build off that little spark we created," Wetzel said. "That's the carry over I would like from last season."

The most obvious challenge? It's common sentiment for teams beginning the season, but this is one is an extreme example.

The Blue Hawks have 11 new faces from last season on a roster of 17. They have only one freshman - Dickinson High graduate Tanner Davidson - but he's a redshirt. The rest are either returners of transfers.

"We're older in terms of upperclassmen, but we're new to the system and a lot of guys are new to the program," Wetzel said. "Basketball is such a chemistry game. It's reactionary game where chemistry is vital. We're lacking that a little bit right now. We think we have the pieces to eventually be competitive, but it's going to be a tremendous learning curve early."

For the first portion of the season, the Blue Hawks will be without all three of their top scorers from last season. Julian Vazquez (17.9 points per game) and Curtis Redd (12.3) both graduated, and Reggie Fields Jr. (11.4) is sidelined for games in the fall semester due to an eligibility technicality.

But for this team to be successful, said both Wetzel and Fields Jr., it won't be about trying to replace the production from one player. It will be about unselfish play, something both think is a real strength.

"That's all coach talks about, our unselfishness," Fields Jr. said. "In all the open gyms, in our scrimmages working on the offense, we're all looking to get each other shots and opportunities. Even the scorers who are one-on-one players, we look to get everybody else going. It makes basketball so much fun, looking for that extra pass."

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Last year, said the 6-foot-7 forward, the ball sometimes had the tendency to stick. This year, they're working on the "point-five offense," an offense that encourages quick decisions and ball movement.

Someone Wetzel thinks will help promote the unselfish play is senior transfer Jake Buck, a point guard from Adams State (Colo.) University.

"We're excited about him. He's a gritty guard. He brings a level of toughness that I think we were lacking last year," Getzel said. "We lacked that element of toughness. He's brought that already."

Ryan Clark - a 6-foot-8 junior originally from Australia - and returning senior Gilberto Shojgreen Jr. are a few other players Wetzel expects to step up. At Lake Region State College, a junior college, Clark broke the school's rebounding record.

The Blue Hawks will have a 10-day break after Yellowstone Christian, then host NCAA Division II Minot State on Oct. 26. From there, they have a mixed bag of teams from other conferences before NSAA competition begins on Dec. 2.

In the meantime, this patchwork group of new faces will be focusing on the one word that could keep the win column climbing in the right direction: chemistry.

Despite Wetzel's hesitancy to say the cohesiveness is where it needs to be, the players think that part won't be much of a problem.

"Things are coming along real good. We're getting into the flow of things. Everything's coming together real nice for everyone," Buck said. "I come out here, I just play. I love this sport. As a point guard, it's not hard for me to share the ball. It's easy for me to get guys the ball. Everyone wants to shoot and that's alright with me."

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