You forget who you are in a hurry sometimes. Or at least whom you’ve become.
And so down there at the 15-minute mark of the second half Thursday at the Gates Center, memory hailed a cab on Jon Coffman’s IPFW Mastodons. They were who they were – making the extra pass, playing inside-out, knocking down the looks that grew out of that – and then they weren’t.
And the night went sideways.
An 11-point lead became a six-point loss to an Omaha team that had lost 11 of its last 13 games, and the narrative was interrupted.
The narrative was about a team that had won seven straight and then lost tough at Summit League leader North Dakota State, a place where no traveler wins. It was about a team that once again was barreling through February, a team that once again was as a good a bet as any to win the conference tournament and seal its invite to the NCAA’s annual March gala.
And then, they were off the road and in the ditch.
And if there’s something positive to take out of that, as the Mastodons get ready to wrap up the regular season at home with Western Illinois today, it’s how Coffman and undoubtedly his team saw those last 15 minutes.
"A check," Coffman called it.
Which means, it was a good jog to the memory, those last unraveling minutes. Everything the Mastodons have done right across the last month, they did wrong. They turned the ball over. They got beat on the glass. They didn’t get Steve Forbes enough touches on the low blocks. They didn’t make the extra pass, and they didn’t knock down the shots when they did.
"Our ultimate goal is to play our best basketball and be successful in our conference tournament," Coffman said. "And if we play that way then during stretches, we’ll be driving home on Sunday."
And if the jog to the memory works, and they don’t play that way?
Well, they can win the thing. In fact, they’re probably a better bet to do it this year than last – because unlike last year, there’s no dominant presence the way North Dakota State was.
"An 8 beating a 1 in our tournament this year?" Coffman says. "Absolutely (that) would be no surprise."
South Dakota State is 12-3 and the Bison 12-4 in league play, but everyone in the league has lost at least eight times overall. And five of the nine teams have at least eight conference wins.
The Mastodons are 15-13 overall, 8-7 in the conference, going into today, and they’ve been strong on the road, going 4-4 away from the Gates. In their seven-game winning streak, four of the wins came on the road.
That team is still there, Thursday night notwithstanding. It’s a team that eerily mirrors last year’s record-setting club in almost every aspect. Six players are averaging between 8.1 and 14.2 points. Six have made at least 10 3-pointers and five have hit at least 21. Six players have led the team in scoring in at least one game, and six have scored 20 or more points in at least one game.
That speaks to balance. That speaks to ball movement. That speaks to no one caring who scores what, or when.
"I think it comes from our coaches," guard Joe Edwards says of all that.
"They consistently push us. They don’t relax on anything. They keep pushing us and trying to get us better for the conference tournament."
Which begins next week, if memory serves.
And won’t end for a while, if it keeps on serving.
Ben Smith is a former columnist for The Journal Gazette. His columns appear periodically.