LEXINGTON, Va. – The 2013-14 men's basketball season was unlike any other in the 40-year history of the Mastodons. The school record book was shredded in a myriad of positive manners, as the team set new standards for wins (25), conference finish (second), league tournament (runner-up), making the postseason at the NCAA Division I level (CollegeInsider.com Tournament), and more.
“It's fun to talk about now,” IPFW coach Tony Jasick said following his team's final game Saturday.
The Mastodons (25-11) fell to Virginia Military Institute 106-95 in the second round of the CIT, and so now is a good time to look ahead to what this program has in store for it.
The task of duplicating the level of success isn't just going to be difficult; it's more than likely going to be impossible. That doesn't mean that the Mastodons can't win their fair share of games and contend near the top of the Summit League next season. But if the Mastodon Nation is anticipating 25 victories and a conference title for next season, they might be disappointed 12 months from now. And there are a number of reasons for that.
Purely by chance, the Mastodons were able to schedule road games (and gain victories) this season against teams that were in the midst of down seasons. Teams like Kennesaw State (6-25), Bowling Green (12-20), Bradley (12-20), (neutral site) Texas-Pan American (9-23), and Eastern Illinois (11-19) all were caught at just the right time by IPFW.
The odds of that happening again next year, or any other for that matter, are fairly slim.
Not only did those aforementioned games prove timely, but IPFW's success this season just made scheduling any games a lot harder.
A high-major program is going to think twice before scheduling IPFW next season, especially when they realize that the Mastodons fell at Illinois (57-55) in the final minute, and let's be frank about this, got jobbed by the officials badly in an 81-80 loss at Sweet 16 participant Dayton.
In the case of Bradley, the Braves administration had to cut Jasick a check after losing 65-61 to his team. That hurts.
The 2013-14 success will also make scheduling games with comparable opponents more difficult. A more renowned mid-major program will be cautious in scheduling IPFW not just because it very well might lose the game, but its fan base won't understand why their team is losing to something called “IPFW.”
At VMI, there were Keydet fans asking if IPFW was actually three different schools that sent players to form one squad. So despite 25 victories and a national television appearance in the Summit League Tournament championship game, this program still has a ways to go in its establishment with basketball fans.
IPFW graduates (because that is what happens with players from this program, they actually go to class, graduate, and start productive careers) three seniors (Luis Jacobo, Pierre Bland, and Michael Kibiloski) off of this team and from a talent standpoint, the loss of these three players is massive. But their impact off of the court is even more so.
“I literally think that we were the best team in America in the intangibles,” Jasick explained, “for unselfishness, of competing as a group, etc. It was just an unbelievable team to be a part of.”
That level of team camaraderie began with the leadership of the three seniors. Throw in that all three players started and were productive, coupled with the fact that Jacobo and Bland were as good as any players in the Summit League at their respective positions, and this team – though returning a lot – just saw a ton of irreplaceable talent walk off the court for the final time.
So what exactly will be needed for IPFW to return to league prominence? A lot of things. Things that are possible to achieve, but will take a significant amount of work – and in the case of senior guard Kevin Harden, plain old luck.
We'll break this analysis of the future into two components: front court and back court.
The Mastodons return starting center Steve Forbes for his final season, as well as junior Joe Reed. Both were extremely productive most of the time this season, but growth is needed by both.
In the case of Forbes, he has to play to his ability 100 percent of the time, not just most of the time. Because of his size (6-foot-9, 285 pounds), he would often get early foul calls against smaller opponents. Yes, they were often disputable calls, but invariably, Forbes would react to his first foul as if it were his third and therefore play timidly from that point forward. I'm not advocating reckless abandon on his part, he still needs to play intelligently, but he needs to play naturally and without fear regardless of getting an early call against him.
Forbes has the ability to dominate in the Summit League (or probably any other conference, for that matter), but not when he is playing with fear instead of aggression.
In the case of Reed, he has progressively gotten better each week that he's been in Fort Wayne. He took a step forward in his development this season, but needs to be better next season. That can be done offensively by developing a face-up 15- to 18-foot shot, and defensively by becoming a lock-down defender.
VMI center D.J. Covington dropped 41 points on the Mastodon front court Saturday, so post defense by all involved needs to improve significantly.
An unknown in the low post is redshirt sophomore Brent Calhoun. There have been early reports that he shows promise in practice sessions, and Calhoun certainly brings size (6-foot-8, 280 pounds) to the floor. But he needs to continue to develop his body physically (lose weight, gain strength and definition, and become more agile and athletic). There is no reason why Calhoun can't be the third cog in a three-man rotation at the center and power forward spots next season.
Another unknown is what Jasick will do with one of his two remaining scholarships. He'll more than likely look to fill a front court spot with a “stretch four” player in the mold of Kibiloski.
The positive for the Mastodons, when looking at their back court, is that they have a lot of players that are proven Division I players returning, so experience will not be an issue.
Mo Evans will be utilized as more of a point guard (which he played in high school) than a scoring guard like he was this season. He’ll still look to produce offensively, but he needs to become the leader that Bland was.
As a freshman this past season, Evans was often spectacular and he earned the league’s Sixth Man of the Year honor for being so. But there were also games (Saturday for example) where Evans was a non-factor. In seven of IPFW’s final 13 games, Evans made two or fewer shots, including an 0 for 4 performance against the Keydets. As the team’s leader offensively next season, Evans has to prove much more reliable.
Senior Isaiah McCray will lead this team defensively next season after a very solid junior campaign. He’ll get a lot of minutes in his final season, as will classmate Joe Edwards.
In the case of Edwards, he needs to develop into a much bigger threat from 3-point range (he made just 21 in 36 games this season, and with his ability to drive the ball, he has to be more accurate from the free throw line (he’s a 57.4 percent free throw shooter).
Harden redshirted this year after recovering from a knee injury suffered last season. He started the first 12 games of his career at IPFW before suffering the injury. If he is fully recovered next season, he’ll battle McCray for the starting job opposite Evans.
Another experienced guard is redshirt junior Max Landis, who sat out this season after transferring from Gardner-Webb. He started 31 games during two seasons at Gardner-Webb, which was one of the better programs in the Big South Conference.
Despite having been in the program three seasons, redshirt junior Herbert Graham is also a bit of an unknown. The word is that he is as talented as any player on the IPFW roster offensively, but until he makes strides defensively, his time is going to be limited. He brings size (6-foot-4), shooting and length to the Mastodon backcourt, so it would really be beneficial to see his game develop balance at both ends of the floor.
Jasick might use one of his two open scholarships on a point guard to back-up Evans, though McCray could do that on a limited basis, and redshirt sophomore Will Dunn can provide shooting off of the bench.