Fort Wayne vs. Kentucky: Mastodons taking challenge in stride
This is the third in a series of stories as News-Sentinel.com takes you behind the scenes of Fort Wayne’s preparation for its men’s basketball game at 8th-ranked Kentucky Wednesday.
After a men’s basketball team has gone on the road and slayed the nation’s No. 3-ranked squad, you won’t have to worry about those players being intimidated in any way, shape or form about having to face the nation’s eighth-best team.
“I tell my teammates all the time,” Fort Wayne fifth-year senior center Xzavier Taylor told News-Sentinel.com Tuesday, “‘You shouldn’t be scared of anybody that breathes the same air as you breathe and bleeds the same blood that you bleed.’ This is just another game to us on our schedule.”
Taylor was speaking of his Mastodons facing No. 8-ranked Kentucky Wednesday (8 p.m., SEC Network).
It was a year ago exactly that Taylor played a key role in helping Fort Wayne knock off No. 3-ranked Indiana at the Coliseum. While technically it was a home game for the Mastodons, you would have had to look closely to find any blue in the arena, as the Hoosier Nation turned out in full force to watch its team get upset.
“Playing Kentucky is no bigger than playing UIC (as the Mastodons did Saturday) or Defiance,” Taylor continued, “it’s just another game.”
Fort Wayne junior Kason Harrell agreed with Taylor – to a degree – but he did say that his emotions were beginning to rev up a bit when his thoughts drifted toward the game following Tuesday’s final practice session.
“I guess for me,” Harrell explained, “I’m a little bit more excited because it is a ranked team, obviously, and we get to play in Rupp Arena, which is a great sports arena.”
“From that standpoint, it is a little bit more emotional for me, but as far as basketball goes, it’s just another game.”
Harrell and Taylor both emphasized that any success that Fort Wayne (3-1) will have against the Wildcats (4-0) will be due to the same factors that result in success against any other opponent.
The Mastodon coaches have preached, ad nauseum, to “play our game” according to fourth-year Fort Wayne coach Jon Coffman.
“We talk a lot about let’s have fun,” Coffman said. “Let’s play our game and be us. Because when we play our game, which is sharing the ball, swinging it side to side, having contagious energy on the defensive end, that is fun, no matter if there are 12,000 or 100 people watching us play.”
Or 24,000-plus, which could be the case Wednesday.
Harrell is one of two current Mastodons that played at both Utah and Indiana two seasons ago, while several of the Fort Wayne players traveled to Arkansas and Notre Dame, as well as faced Indiana, last season. So taking the floor at Rupp Arena isn’t going to shock their systems.
In the case of Taylor, he spent his first two seasons with the program at Bradley before transferring to Fort Wayne, and while with the Braves, his experience included games at Memphis, Kansas State, Illinois, Arizona State, as well as the deafening Koch Arena at Wichita State.
“It was so loud,” Taylor recalled of facing the Shockers, “and so crazy, I couldn’t even hear my point guard calling the plays.”
Taylor said the key to surviving hostile environments such as that is to focus with laser-like intensity on your job, not anything from the surroundings.
“If you pay attention to the things going on on the outside,” Taylor said, “you are not going to do anything good in the game.”
“I remember from the Indiana game (last year), if I looked up in the crowd, all I saw was red, so I just focused on the game and doing my job to help my teammates win.”
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