The first season for Purdue Fort Wayne basketball in the post-John Konchar era was also the program's last in the Summit League, the conference it has called home since 2007. When the Mastodons suit up again, it will be as part of the Horizon League; there will be no trips up to the Dakotas in the near future.
In that final season in the Summit League, a young Mastodons team struggled to a 14-19 record, its fewest wins since a Tony Jasick-led team went 11-19 in 2011-12. Still, there was plenty to be excited about, according to coach Jon Coffman.
The Mastodons, who were an offensive-minded team that mostly looked to out-score opponents when Konchar was a threat to score from anywhere, morphed into one of the Summit League's better defensive units late in the season, ranking second in the conference behind only league co-champion North Dakota State in scoring defense.
That defense showed up at the end of the season, when the Mastodons grabbed their biggest win of the year. In the quarterfinals of the Summit League Tournament, against regular season co-champion South Dakota State, PFW held the Jackrabbits, who had hung with Arizona and Indiana earlier in the season, to a 32% shooting performance from 3-point range and won 77-74 to advance to the semifinals.
The victory over SDSU was all the more impressive because, as Coffman put it, there were about 12,000 fans in the stadium in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and maybe 12 of them were PFW supporters.
“This year, probably more than the previous (years), we had a few more question marks, but I felt that coming down the stretch (of the season), we'd have a chance and we clearly showed that,” Coffman said. “Your goal as a coach is to be playing your best basketball at the end of the year. ... (Against South Dakota State), we were clearly playing our best. We put together 40 minutes.”
The Mastodons ran out of gas in the second half of the semifinals against North Dakota State, falling 73-56, but still made a splash in their last-ever Summit League Tournament.
They will depart the league as the last team outside of the Dakotas to claim at least a share of the regular-season conference title, having done so in 2015-16.
As the team enters a transitional offseason, here are three questions that need to be answered before the 2020-21 season tips off.
Can players grow?
Two of PFW's most promising players this year were underclassmen. Jarred Godfrey, a sophomore, has a chance to be one of the top scorers in program history by the time he's done after averaging 15.6 points this season while also ranking among the league leaders in assists. He will work to get better from beyond the 3-point line, where he shot just 30% this season despite attempting 5.5 per game. If he can get closer to 35%, he could be a 20-point per game player.
As for Deonte Billups, he was the Mastodons' highest-scoring freshman since Konchar, averaging 8.8 points on his way to All-Summit League Newcomer honors. With that pair in the fold, the Mastodons have a solid foundation upon which to build.
“You're going to have trouble winning a league with your two playmakers being freshmen and sophomores,” Coffman said. “But the key is that those guys (Godfrey and Billups) took big shots down the stretch in games. They made some, missed some, but they had the experience, so we're in a great spot moving forward.”
Can shooting improve?
The Mastodons' offense has relied heavily on 3-pointers in recent years and that worked well in previous seasons. In the last three years prior to 2019-20, Purdue Fort Wayne ranked in the top 90 in 3-point shooting percentage three times and in the top 30 twice.
This season, however, PFW ranked 274th in shooting percentage from beyond the arc, with its rate plummeting from 37.9% last season to 31.6% this season. Some of that drop is because of the NCAA moved the line back, but the Mastodons have to get better next year for their offense to catch back up to their defense.
That's especially true with the team's top two 3-point shooters this season, Matt Holba and Brian Patrick, graduating.
What will move to Horizon League mean?
This is the million-dollar question as the Mastodons' conference transition begins. They will no longer have to play a handful of road games all the way up in the Dakotas; instead, their longest trip will be to Green Bay, Wisconsin.
The first season also might provide the Mastodons with an advantage because the conference isn't used to PFW's aggressive play.
“We play differently than a lot of people,” Coffman said. “I think there's going to be great value going into a new league where we play differently and guys will be trying to adjust. ... For me, it's a really cool, fresh start for me. It's almost like getting a new job and having new challenges.”
Top 5 moments
PFW clamps down on Judson: The Mastodons' improved defense was on full display in a game against Judson on Dec. 10. PFW held the visitors to just 23% shooting and in the first 13 minutes of the game limited the Eagles to 1-for-14 shooting and forced 10 turnovers. Jarred Godfrey had his first career double-double with 11 points and 10 rebounds in a 69-33 win.
Godfrey dominates December: The PFW sophomore guard won the Summit League Player of the Week honor on Dec. 2 after leading the Mastodons to back-to-back wins over Niagara and Grand Canyon. Against Grand Canyon, he poured in a season-high 28 points.
DeBerry buries North Dakota: PFW senior Marcus DeBerry, who transferred from Northern Arizona, had a huge game in a win over the Fighting Hawks on Jan. 30 at Memorial Coliseum. He made his first seven 3-point attempts, including all six in the first half and finished 7 for 8 from deep for a career-high 23 points in a 72-68 Mastodons win. He finished nine points shy of 1,000 for his career.
Billups breaks out: Freshman Deonte Billups had his best game late, racking up a career-high 21 points and grabbing nine rebounds, five on the offensive end, in a 58-51 win over Denver on Feb. 26.
Mastodons upend tournament: PFW pulled an upset in the first round of the Summit League Tournament, knocking off regular-season co-champion South Dakota State on the way to the semifinals. The Mastodons won 77-74 after racking up 22 assists, forcing nine steals and hitting 13 3-pointers. Senior Matt Holba kept his career alive with a 6-for-13 performance from beyond the arc.