College basketball preview: Fort Wayne Mastodons

Mastodons' season rests on their defensive play

Indiana guard Zach McRoberts (15) fouls Fort Wayne guard John Konchar (55) during overtime of a game last season at the Coliseum. (By The Associated Press)
Fort Wayne men's basketball coach Jon Coffman gestures during the second half of his team's game game against Indiana in Fort Wayne last season at the Coliseum. (By The Associated Press)
Fort Wayne guard Bryson Scott (1) celebrates a 71-68 win over Indiana in overtime last season at the Coliseum in Fort Wayne. (By The Associated Press)
Indiana center Thomas Bryant (31) defends Fort Wayne guard Kason Harrell (32) in the second half of a game last season at the Coliseum. (By The Associated Press)
IPFW forward Xzavier Taylor (22) celebrates as he walk in front of Indiana centers Thomas Bryant (31) and Juwan Morgan (13) during overtime of a game last season at the Coliseum. (By The Associated Press)

When a basketball program has won 101 games over the past five seasons, as well as advanced to the postseason each of the past four springs, it officially has evolved into one that annually “reloads,” rather than ever “rebuilds.”

In the case of Fort Wayne, it has eight players on its 14-man roster this season that have never taken the court in a Mastodon uniform before, so fourth-year coach Jon Coffman is definitely doing some construction work this preseason, but the Mastodons’ culture of work and success is entrenched at this point.

“I’m really proud of the growth of our program,” Coffman said recently. “I love our mindset that we are coming into this year with. Our group recognizes that they are part of something bigger than themselves. We are where we are because of past generations of our basketball players, our alums and our former coaches.”

“This group starts every day with an appreciation.”

Fort Wayne will open its regular season Friday at former Summit League rival Oakland (7 p.m.).

This is the sixth of seven college basketball preview stories that will be published at News-Sentinel.com this week. Sunday: Ball State

FRONTCOURT

A couple of years ago, Coffman had a heart-to-heart talk with Mastodon center Brent Calhoun and the coach was prepared to see the overweight, immature Calhoun walk out the door.

Fast-forward to last spring and Coffman in no way, shape, or form wanted Calhoun to be done playing for Fort Wayne.

The former Mastodon turned his life – on and off of the court – around and became a very good player, team leader and student for Fort Wayne. But following Calhoun’s graduation, there is left just one experienced post player for Coffman and that is fifth-year center Xzavier Taylor.

“I expect Xzavier to have a phenomenal year,” Coffman said. “I remember two years ago when he come in, everything we talked about, it was making his head spin.”

Taylor transferred to Fort Wayne after starting his career at Bradley University and he has had his moments.

The 6-foot-9, 255-pound athlete scored in double figures six times last season, including a 10-point night at Notre Dame.

“Xzavier really feels comfortable with our expectations for him,” Coffman said. “He’s letting the game come to him and he has a great understanding of what his role is.”

BACKCOURT

From a pure talent standpoint, there may not be a better perimeter attack within the Summit League than Fort Wayne.

Coffman can utilize arguably the best player in the league in redshirt junior John Konchar at the one, two, three or four spots, and Fort Wayne also has fifth-year senior Bryson Scott (a second team All-Summit League Preseason selection) to team with junior shooter Kason Harrell.

Konchar has been all-league since the day he got on the court for the Mastodons and most assuredly will finish his career as the best player in the history of the program.

As a redshirt sophomore, Konchar nearly 15 points and nine rebounds and shot a (you’ll think I’ve made a typo) blistering 63.7 percent from the floor (including 51.7 percent from 3-point range).

“(Konchar) is going to have the ball in his hands a lot,” Coffman said. “We’ve worked really, really hard with John this off-season of getting catches with ready feet.”

Konchar needs to be “ready” to catch and shoot, but just as much, he can be a threat to pass or drive, as well, which is fine with him.

“I want to be a great passer,” Konchar said of his developmental goals this season.

The 6-foot-5 player developed guard skills as a youngster before growing his freshman season in high school, so running an offense isn’t new to him after doing so in high school.

Konchar explained that he has spent this preseason focusing a lot on getting into the lane to create scoring opportunities for teammates. He averaged nearly four assists per game last year, but said “six assists per game” is more in line this year with his goals.

“I’ve tried to drive really hard,” Konchar told News-Sentinel.com, “and look for my teammates to get open.”

Scott enjoyed a “hometown heroes'” welcome when he played a vital defensive role in Fort Wayne’s epic upset of nationally-ranked Indiana last season and the Northrop High School grad eventually averaged over 16 points per game.

“Bryson had a great off-season,” Coffman said, “and he is really, really playing at a high level right now.”

The 6-foot-1 Purdue transfer also grabbed five rebounds per game in his first season with the Fort Wayne program.

In the case of Harrell, he worked his way from a scrub (72 minutes – total – as a freshman) into a starter that averaged nearly 30 minutes per game as a sophomore.

He connected on 75 3-point shots at a 43.9 percent clip, as he averaged over 10 points per game.

Also vying for time will be 6-foot-4 senior Jordon King and 6-foot-7 wing Jax Levitch, who played double figure minutes in 6 of the Mastodons’ final 8 games as a freshman.

NEWCOMERS

Fort Wayne doesn’t lack for new faces this season and that goes equally for the front and backcourts.

“We have eight players that have never worn a game jersey for us,” Coffman said.

Transfers Marcus DeBerry (6-foot-8, Northern Arizona) and former Indiana All-Star Matt Holba (6-foot-6, Lehigh) won’t play this season, but redshirt freshmen guards Jordan Coblin and Chris Rollins, as well as center Dylan Carl are available.

Rollins is a 6-foot point guard that brings speed to the court and Konchar believes he has really good potential as a contributor.

“He gets into the lane really well,” Konchar said of Rollins. “He’s a great passer and he can shoot the ball really well. He’s quick off the dribble, (but) he just needs to gain some more pounds.”

That isn’t a problem for the 6-foot-11 Carl.

The Michigan native has gained nearly 30 pounds in the 16 months that he has been on campus and should compete with another newcomer, true freshman Cameron Benford, for back-up minutes to Taylor.

The 6-foot-8 Benford has made an impression on the Mastodon coaching staff with his rebounding ability in the preseason.

A couple more freshmen in the backcourt are true freshmen Matt Weir (point guard) and Jairus Stevens (a 2 and/3-type player), both of whom have the ability to contribute this season.

PREDICTION

What separated Fort Wayne from a good season and a great year last season was its defensive play. Or lack thereof.

The Mastodons led in the second half of every league game a year ago, but lost half of their 16 Summit League games. Quite simply, Fort Wayne HAS to be better defensively and it WILL be better defensively.

“This group has continued to work and have an edge,” Coffman said, “and try to take the next step with our program and get better every single day.”

The Mastodons have a very challenging non-league schedule that Coffman said “is the toughest of my tenure.” Fort Wayne will travel to Oakland, UIC, East Tennessee State, Akron, Miami (Ohio), as well as Indiana and Kentucky.

This team is not as talented as last year’s squad was, but if it can defend well, the Mastodons definitely have enough offensive ability to get to 20 wins again.

MASTODON BITS

Bright spot for Mastodon Nation?

Every time that the Fort Wayne fans stroll into the game and see John Konchar going through the lay-up line has to make them feel tingly inside.

Player to watch?

Xzavier Taylor. The experienced big man has to stay out of foul trouble and contribute at both ends of the floor for at least 25 minutes per game.

Problem for Fort Wayne?

Post depth. Pray for Coffman if Taylor ever gets hurt or is in foul trouble (which very well could happen regularly).

Newcomer impact?

Matt Weir. The freshman point guard will be getting important minutes by the second half of the season.

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