Written by Emily Lowell
Castleton University and Nebraska Wesleyan University are 1,211 miles apart, but that didn't stop two Castleton men's basketball alumni from playing a role in the Prairie Wolves' NCAA Division III National Championship this past season.
Two former Spartans, Tyler Ackley and Casey McGraw, have worked with the eventual national championship team in the past four years as an assistant coach.
Ackley was the assistant men's basketball coach at Nebraska Wesleyan from 2014 to 2017. At Nebraska Wesleyan, he helped lead the Prairie Wolves in NAIA Division II in scoring after the 2014-15 (92.5 ppg) and 2015-16 (96.3 ppg) seasons. The team also led NAIA Division II in made three-point shots both seasons. Ackley worked at NWU during the University's transition from NAIA Division II to NCAA Division III and the Iowa Intercollegiate Athletic Conference in 2016-2017.
During Ackley's time at Castleton he helped the Spartans win their first-ever North Atlantic Conference (NAC) title in the 2011-12 season. Ackley was also a two-year captain for the Spartans.
Castleton men's basketball head coach Paul Culpo described Ackley as vociferous. "Tyler was our point guard and leader. His belief in himself made him the player he was. He was extremely tough and competitive," said Culpo, who knew from when he first saw Ackley play in high school that he was going to have great success.
Ackley was very competitive and came from a winning high school program with a very good coach. He was extremely competitive and had an incredible amount of belief in himself that made him successful. He was also fearless. These attributes have led Ackley to a successful career in coaching.
When it came time for Ackley to find an assistant coaching position, Culpo helped by connecting Ackley with Dale Wellman, NWU's men's basketball head coach. Wellman was at Alfred University when Culpo was at Hartwick College.
Meanwhile at Castleton, Ackley's old teammate Casey McGraw was finishing his last two seasons of his collegiate career. During his time as a Spartan, McGraw appeared in 102 games and was averaging 6.0 points and 3.7 rebounds per game during his senior year. Culpo described McGraw as a very smart shooter, as McGraw knew all of the team's offensive and defensive calls and everyone's positions.
When Culpo was recruiting McGraw, he explained him to be "very soft spoken and carried himself as so, I liked his bloodlines and he was a very smart player."
McGraw comes from a basketball family, with one uncle that played at Siena, another graduating from Hartwick as the all-time leading scorer and taking his team to the national semifinals, and yet another uncle that starred at both Sage Junior College and CSJ.
"My whole life I knew I would coach in some capacity, but I never thought things would play out the way they have," said McGraw.
During this time, McGraw followed Ackley's career and the NWU men's basketball program. McGraw became very fond of the program and supported them because he was supporting his old teammate and friend Ackley. McGraw described Ackley as the best teammate he ever had. At one point, Ackley introduced McGraw to Wellman.
"I realized this was a guy I wanted to work for at some point in my life because he was just so knowledgeable," said McGraw, who made sure to keep in touch with Wellman. McGraw helped work a camp for two weeks in Nebraska, when he says he fell in love with the school and the city of Lincoln.
Shortly after, Ackley took the assistant coach position at Colby College, and Wellman didn't hesitate to offer his open position to McGraw. Once McGraw made the big move to Nebraska Wesleyan, he knew this was going to be something special, not just for him but for the team.
Seeing the banners hanging in the gym, McGraw knew that the expectations were going to be high. From there the transition was pretty smooth thanks to such a great team, coaching staff, administration and Lincoln as a city.
"You might fail trying to capitalize on 99% of those opportunities, but it's that 1% that can break your career open," said McGraw. "There's a ton of coaches I look up to and so many that have had a huge impact on me. I think specifically my dad, Coach Culpo, Coach (Charlie) Mason (at New England College) and Coach Wellman are all engrained in who I am as a person and as a coach, which is what I love so much about this industry."
On March 17, 2018, in Salem, Va., Nebraska Wesleyan won its first NCAA Division III Championship. It was a close back-and-forth game, but the Prairie Wolves prevailed, 78-72, over UW-Oshkosh. Nebraska Wesleyan set a school record with 30 wins, finishing with a 30-3 overall record. The Prairie Wolves ended their season on a 13-game winning streak.
NWU ranked in the top five of NCAA Division III in 11 different statistical categories. The Prairie Wolves set single season school records with 3,150 points and a .782 free throw percentage. In the NCAA Division III Tournament, the Prairie Wolves set a new record making 73 three-pointers.
Connections in the coaching industry are very important and both Ackley and McGraw have many thanks to give to Culpo. Ackley and McGraw are two of 11 past players and coaches for Culpo that have moved on to have their own coaching career in college and high school.
"Coaching is a very small world and most of it is about who you know to get started," said Culpo. "I have been very fortunate to get my assistants jobs as they have left me over the years, but what they do with those opportunities is all about them. I am very proud of both Tyler and Casey, they have already done great things as young assistants. Truthfully the assistants I have had that stayed in basketball are doing some really good things."