Former Indiana State men’s basketball coach Royce Waltman coached the sport for over 40 years, and he used to begin each season with the same goal, which was to have a basketball “team.”
“A lot of schools play basketball,” Waltman would explain, “but very few have basketball teams,” as he emphasized the last word.
What he meant was developing an unselfish group of talented athletes that worked diligently together in order to achieve tremendous success as a group, not as individuals. Illinois men’s basketball coach John Groce, who used to compete against Waltman’s teams when the coach was at DePauw and Groce was a player at Taylor, fully comprehends that, and he knows a basketball “team” when he sees one.
Groce saw one Friday in IPFW.
The Mastodons scared the bejesus out of 15,638 fans (and Groce) at the State Farm Center in Champaign before falling 57-55. It was the third defeat for IPFW (6-3), all of which have come by a combined four points.
“I will tell you,” Groce said in his post-game press conference, “they’re good now. The way they play defensively, their coverage on the ball screen, their good.
“They executed well. They are a basketball team. You know? I tell the guys all of the time, individuals play the game, (but) teams do special things.”
IPFW has done several “special things” already this young season.
The Mastodons’ six victories in eight games is the best start in the program’s history at the Division I era. The Mastodons have been the victim of blatant bad officiating in a one-point loss at Dayton, and questionable officiating on Friday, of which Mastodon coach Tony Jasick took the high-road during a post-game interview. But make no mistake about it, this group is talented, intelligent, unselfish and play with a level of ferocity that enables it to nearly overcome an occasional instance of getting jobbed on the road.
Groce and his assistants prepared for the Mastodons and knew trouble lied ahead.
“I saw that over the past two days (of watching film),” Groce explained. “I thought ‘Oh boy, these guys are a team.’ They really gel well together at both ends of the floor.”
IPFW has had six different players lead it offensively in its nine games, and effort-wise, this squad has been astounding with its productivity on the glass.
The Mastodons grabbed as many offensive rebounds (16) as Eastern Illinois did total in a recent Mastodon road win, but that was Eastern Illinois. Surely, IPFW couldn’t hang with a Big Ten team on the road rebounding-wise. Right?
IPFW out-rebounded Illinois 39-33 (13-10 offensively). The Mastodons also limited the Illini to just 39 percent shooting.
“They were really physical,” Groce said. “They beat us to loose balls. They played really, really well.”
The one area where IPFW didn’t “play well” was where Illinois wasn’t even allowed to guard them – at the free throw line.
The Mastodons entered Friday’s game shooting nearly 68 percent as a team from the line, but missed an unfathomable 11 of 13 attempts in Champaign.
“I don’t know where that (type of a night) came from,” IPFW coach Tony Jasick said.
Jasick may have been perplexed by his team’s free throw shooting performance, but like Groce, Jasick isn’t confounded as he watches the Mastodons play.
“This wasn’t a fluke,” Jasick said of the near upset.
No it wasn’t. That’s because this IPFW “team” is for real.