The Ball State and Fort Wayne men’s basketball programs aren’t separated by much geographically or athletically, so the fact that those organizing the CollegeInsider.com Tournament (CIT) matched these two (should be) natural rivals against each other actually gives college basketball fans in this state a reason to care – for one night anyway – about this event.
The two programs will meet in the opening round of the CIT Wednesday at 7 p.m. at the Gates Sports Center and what both fan bases will learn over the course of 40 minutes is that this is a game that should be played every year, not just when a committee creates it.
Ball State and Fort Wayne played nearly nine years ago and the Cardinals won a 54-52 thriller and Wednesday’s game should be just as close.
The Mastodons (19-12) tore across the nation’s sports consciousness briefly in November when they upset then No. 3-ranked Indiana in overtime at Memorial Coliseum. However, that moment of brilliance was doused with a two-month long trudge through disappointment, as Fort Wayne lumbered to an 8-8 record in the Summit League and was a six-seed in the league tournament after being picked in the preseason to win it.
Fort Wayne has lost three of its last four games, while Ball State (21-12) has won six of eight, but no one should think that recent momentum will cause this game to be anything other than one decided in the final minute.
The Cardinals are enjoying a much-awaited ascension under fourth-year coach James Whitford, while Fort Wayne has become a program trying to figure out how to properly handle an ever-growing level of expectation due to consistent success under third-year coach Jon Coffman.
Following a pair of terrible seasons to start Whitford’s tenure, Ball State has won 42 games in the past two seasons. However, as good as the Cardinals have become, the truth of the matter is Fort Wayne has been better.
The Mastodons have won 43 games in the past two seasons and have strung together 100 victories over the past five seasons (as compared to Ball State’s 69).
While the Cardinals are touting their second straight postseason bid, the Mastodons have played in the postseason twice as many times (four straight).
All of those statistics may surprise the Cardinal fan base, which isn’t cognizant of the Mastodons’ success, and so will the talent level of Fort Wayne.
The Cardinals have some good players, but they don’t have a John Konchar.
Omaha coach Derrin Hansen has been coaching for three decades and after watching Konchar score 25 points against his Mavericks (which matched Konchar’s season average in three games against Omaha); he didn’t mince words in talking about the Fort Wayne forward.
“Offensively,” Hansen began, “when you are that big and that athletic, and you score at all three levels; you just don’t see that much anymore.”
In the latest game against Omaha, Fort Wayne point guard Mo Evans was in foul trouble for much of the night, so the 6-foot-5 five Konchar had to run the Mastodons’ offense. Coffman had the luxury of moving the Summit League leader in rebounding (8.9 per game), field goal percentage (64.3 percent) and 3-point shooting (53.8 percent), to point guard, and Konchar did just fine.
“He can shoot it from 3,” Hansen said. “He can drive it and pull up. He can drive it and find someone on that backdoor and he can take one more hard dribble and get it to the rim.
“He can play at all three levels and he can play off the ball screen, which just puts pressure on your defense. So he does all of that, and he guards and rebounds at the other end. Other than that, Konchar is not really a very good basketball player.”
Konchar has been a First Team All-Summit League selection each of his two seasons and Hansen doesn’t expect anything less throughout the rest of his career.
“He’s an incredible basketball player,” Hansen said. “He’s done nothing but give us fits. We have guys that give us fits, but not like him.”