Fort Wayne getting defensive in early league play

Kentucky's Pj Washington, middle, loses the ball between Fort Wayne's Jordon King, left, and Xzavier Taylor during the second half of a game earlier this season in Lexington. (By The Associated Press)
Fort Wayne men's basketball coach Jon Coffman calls a play during the second half of a game against Kentucky earlier this season in Lexington. (By The Associated Press)
Kentucky's Nick Richards, right, shoots while defended by Fort Wayne's Dylan Carl during the first half of a game earlier this season in Lexington. (By The Associated Press)

A year ago, Fort Wayne lost as many Summit League games (eight) as it won and the main reason for that was a lack of defense, particularly when the games were at their most critical juncture.

The Mastodons actually held a lead in the second half of every single conference game, but somehow stumbled to a .500 mark and the sixth seed in the league tournament. However, fourth-year Mastodon coach Jon Coffman took steps to remedy that situation over the off-season.

“I spent a lot of time trying to figure that out in the off-season,” Coffman told News-Sentinel.com recently. “What we’ve got to be able to do is when we need to lock in, second half, and we’ve got to get a stop or we’ve got to string some stops together, we’ve got to be able to do that.”

It’s early in league play, but so far there are signs (multiple) that the Mastodons are evolving in that regard.

Fort Wayne (12-7, 1-1 SL) will host South Dakota (14-5, 2-1) Thursday at the Coliseum at 7 p.m.

The Mastodons have had mixed results in their initial two league games, but porous defense at important moments hasn’t been an issue.

Fort Wayne got beat 76-60 at Oral Roberts to open its league schedule, but that loss was due to a lack of offensive success more than anything.

The Golden Eagles did make 48 percent of their shots in the final half, but the Mastodons only trailed by three early before shooting just 28 percent overall and 18 percent from 3-point range in the second half. Both of those numbers will be an anomaly with this team. The Mastodons are second in the Summit League in scoring and 3-pointers made, so the number of nights that Fort Wayne will struggle offensively should be few and far between.

In its last game, Fort Wayne raced out to a 10-point halftime lead and defended the Pioneers very well in the second half, as Denver made just 40 percent of its shots and none of its six 3-pointers.

“I’m never satisfied,” Coffman said of his team’s defensive play this season, “but I’m pleased with our growth and now we are hunting consistency.”

Coffman said the problem last season was often due to the offensive pace of his team, which had a negative effect on its defensive “consistency.” However, this team is playing at a more controlled pace – not slow, mind you, though – which is helping it to better focus defensively.

“We’ve always played with pace,” Coffman said. “We’ve always pushed the ball, dating back to when (Tony Jasick) was here. The difference was (last year) we were taking quicker shots. We weren’t taking bad shots, we were taking really good shots, but the struggle we had was playing at that tempo puts a lot of pressure on your defense.”

“It wears you down.”

That is something that the Mastodon defense has done to its opposition this season.

Fort Wayne leads the Summit League in steals (8.6 per game), as well as turnovers forced (nearly 17 per game). Against Denver, the Mastodons forced 17 turnovers, 10 of which were steals.

Nationally, Fort Wayne ranks 24th in turnovers forced and 21st in steals.

“Despite having six (first-year players),” Coffman said, “statistically, and objectively, as I watch the games, I feel like we are a better defensive squad than we were last year.”

SCOTT GOING OUT IN STYLE

Mastodon fifth-year senior guard Bryson Scott is closing out his collegiate career with some impressive numbers.

The former Northrop High star is averaging over 22 points per game (and ranks first nationally in total points) and he has been magnificent at the free throw line.

Scott ranks third nationally in free throw attempts and second in makes (84.6 percent).

He is a major reason as to why the Mastodons are ranked nationally as a team in the top 26 in both categories.

For more on college basketball, follow Tom Davis on Twitter at Tom101010 and on Facebook at Thomas Davis.

COMMENTS