It’s the universal rule of all repeat bids: Life only gets tougher at the top.
The Dubuque Wahlert boys basketball team’s Class 3A state championship defense wasn’t going to be a walk in the park or the type of dominating sleepwalk stroll some of the Chicago Bulls’ NBA championship teams took to glory in the 1990s.
Instead, Tom English and his team entered the season expecting a four-month struggle that offered breaks only on Sundays.
It has been all that and more. English, star Iowa recruit Eric May and the Golden Eagles have gotten black and blue against a fierce Mississippi Valley Conference that has proven just as tough as last year’s league, which was a playground on high-profile stars like Iowa City High’s Matt Gatens.
Anybody entering the story late can’t tell from their six-game winning streak, but Wahlert had a shaky 3-3 flight out of the gate. The Eagles reached a low point in a sloppy 67-53 Dec. 12 loss to Cedar Falls in which the Eagles’ motion offense was a rhythm-less mess. For May, the game tape was uglier than anything in the new slasher movie “My Bloody Valentine 3D.”
“That’s when I felt something had to change,” May said. “After the game, we watched film and it was disgusting to watch how bad we played and how poorly we flowed, myself included. I was embarrassed for myself.”
The Eagles, whose new role players struggled to find their place in the Wahlert offense early, were standing around and free dribbling instead of executing, May said.
Wahlert had motion sickness.
“We weren’t playing hard at all. We weren’t playing Wahlert basketball,” May said. “It was a lot of dribbling, not enough passing, not enough motion. That’s what we’re about: getting everyone involved. That’s what we had to pick up.”
Have they ever. Learning from the Cedar Falls debacle, the 9-3 Golden Eagles have rolled off six straight victories and posted season highs in points in their last two wins. An absolutely brilliant May delivered the greatest offensive performance in Wahlert’s rich history with his school-record 43-point show in Tuesday’s 80-56 flight past Davenport Assumption. May hit 15 of 21 shots, scored 23 points in the third quarter and didn’t even play the fourth.
But every man in the Wahlert rotation has picked up his play since the Cedar Falls wakeup call. Center Kramer Uhlik is playing as a combo post-wing man and making the passes of a point guard. Posts Nolan Gall and Danny Leibfried have been consistent producers, and guard Tony Callahan has shown a Mike Rupp-like ability to knock down big 3-pointers. The Eagles enter the season’s second half back at full strength following the returns of guards Jake Burbach and Nick Brautigam from injury.
May credits Cedar Falls and the two intense practices English put his team through following the loss for Wahlert’s revival.
“Those were two of the best practices we had,” May said. “We turned it around.”