ATHENS, Tenn. - The season began with four losses, but that was a long time ago for the Tennessee Wesleyan College men's basketball team. Coach Mike Poe's Bulldogs are storming into the NAIA Division II national tournament on an 18-game winning streak.
Ranked 17th in the preseason poll, the Bulldogs dropped out of sight for a while, but they surged back to 13th and begin play Thursday at Point Lookout, Mo., with a 5 p.m. EST game against Grace from Indiana. Grace is 21-9; TWC is 25-7 and the most complete team Poe has taken to a national tournament.
"No question this is our best team to go out there and make some noise," Poe said. "What has been our Achilles' heel the last three times we've gone has been rebounding, physical strength. But this year we're strong inside and we have multiple shooters, and we've got a great point guard. And we're very deep."
And the Bulldogs are making their second consecutive national appearance. The "little bit glad to be there" attitude has evolved into "more of a mission to compete," Poe said.
He wasn't as concerned about the 0-4 start, including a loss to Point University in TWC's first Appalachian Athletic Conference game, as he might normally have been. He knew help was on the way.
For one thing, 5-foot-7 senior point guard E'Jay Ward (from Brainerd High School) was sitting out the first semester as a part-time student because of the NAIA's 10-to-play-8 rule. He had one non-playing semester at a junior college and went to Southern University for football before enrolling at TWC. He could play only one semester this year, and naturally the second semester was more important.
"It was kind of killing me at first," Ward said. "I'm a competitor and the team was struggling, and it was my first time ever to be sitting out."
Then there was Tyler Burse from LaFayette, one of the Bulldogs' two 6-6 inside players transferring from NCAA Division II programs. The son of a former TWC player, he was one hour short of the eligibility requirement from his time at Shorter, so he too had to wait until the first semester ended.
TWC still was 5-5 when Ward and Burse joined the lineup with wings Desmond Crisp and Shannon Smith, reliable senior forward Matt Harper from McMinn Central and Francis Marion transfer post Zamarius McLendon. Smith ran the point in Ward's absence.
"We can think where we would be if we had E'Jay and Tyler from the start," Poe said, "but it may have really made us better because some of the other guys had to step up and get some extra experience. It's made us deeper."
And the additions took them over the top.
"E'Jay has been my leader for four years," Harper said. "He controls what goes on on the floor. And Tyler has really helped the rebounding aspect, he and Z."
Even with the delayed start, Ward was the AAC's defensive and overall player of the year, averaging eight assists and four steals with 7.8 points a game. Crisp has not needed to score as much as last season but still leads the team with 16 points a game, followed by Burse at 15.1, McLendon at 14.9, Smith at 11.5, Harper at 11 and Derek Triplett at 8.8.
"Last year I brought a little more to the table," Crisp said. "We weren't as deep as we are this year. This year we spread out the scoring and I'm totally cool with it."
McLendon, the national player of the week after his MVP performance in the AAC tournament, has averaged 8.2 rebounds with Burse at 6.6.
"What makes us so good is we've bonded together," said Burse, who was at the NAIA Division I nationals with Shorter last year.
Harper, who made the AAC all-tournament team, was needed more for rebounding last season.
"Last year we had talent, but we didn't have the big guys down low like this year. That's opened up a lot of things," he said.
And it's given the Bulldogs reason to believe their streak can get a little longer.
"The guys who've been here are not really excited about winning the conference," Ward said. "We were supposed to do that. We're looking to be nationally known."