FORT WAYNE – And now, welcome to conference play.
Or maybe it should sound like this: WELCOME TO CONFERENCE PLAY!
Which is to say, there will be no easing into things, as the IPFW men’s basketball team gets North Dakota State to begin its Summit League journey tonight at the Gates Center. It doesn’t get much more full-throated than that, as conference openers go.
The Bison, after all, are a shout-out-loud load, coming in at 11-4. They’ve lost only once since before Thanksgiving, and that was to No. 3 Ohio State in Columbus. They’ve won four straight and nine of their last 10, including a 73-69 win over Notre Dame at South Bend on Dec. 11. And they have five players scoring in double figures, led by 6-foot-7 guard Taylor Braun, who’s averaging 18.9 points to go with a team-high 55 assists and 26 steals. Marshall Bjorklund, a 6-8 senior forward, is averaging 15. Bjorklund lit up the Irish for 26 points on 11-for-14 shooting from the field.
Nothing like full immersion for an IPFW team that’s not playing badly itself after posting a 12-5 record in its preconference schedule.
The Mastodons have won six of their last seven games after stumbling in the second half at Miami (Ohio) on Dec. 3. The only loss was an uncharacteristic 90-68 pummeling Dec. 29 at home to Eastern Kentucky, after which the Mastodons rallied for wins at Bowling Green (65-50) and back home against Division III Kalamazoo (110-74). Three of their five losses have been by two points or fewer, including a 57-55 loss at Illinois.
I think we’ve done some good things, Mastodons coach Tony Jasick said after the blowout against Kalamazoo. I think there are obviously some things that when we look back we wish we’d have done better, but I think overall, with this group, things will continue to improve.
So does Joe Reed, the team’s leading rebounder at 5.6 per game.
We’ve had a couple big games this year that we kind of let slip away from us, and I think we’ve learned how to finish from those games, he said last week. (That’s important because) I think every conference game we have is going to be a battle this year.
That begins tonight. And in scoring makeup, anyway, the Mastodons are North Dakota State’s doppelganger.
Like the Bison, offensive balance has been the key so far; six players are averaging at least eight points, and a seventh and eighth, Isaiah McCray and Joe Edwards, are averaging 7.9. Luis Jacobo leads the way at 14.0, and he’s one of five players shooting 40 percent or better from behind the arc.
Mo Evans leads the Mastodons in that category at a tick over 49 percent (28 of 57).
They’ll need all of that and more, according to Jasick.
I think overall we’re in a pretty good spot, he says. That being said, I think our league is really good. I think we’re going to have our hands full literally every night. There’s tons of talented players, I think there’s good teams and I think that they’re well-coached. So the next two months are going to be a big challenge.