by Matthew Snyder / @schnides14 

They’d pushed Illinois to the brink in November, braving 15,638 rabid fans forming a sea of Illini orange at the State Farm Center in Champaign (cap. 17,200), before falling 57-55.

A mad scramble inevitably erupted in the post-game press conference, to figure out just how this Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne (IPFW as it’s more commonly labeled), which finished 16-17 a year ago and is in just its 13th season at the Division I level, had come this close to upsetting a team from vaunted Big Ten country.

Mastodons third-year head coach Tony Jasick stood calm amidst the storm. “This isn’t a fluke,” he told the Associated Press. “I like our team.”

Fast-forward two months, and IPFW is 16-6. They’ve jumped out to a 4-1 start in the Summit League, good for first place in the standings. They’re barreling toward a post-season berth. This past weekend, the Mastodons defeated IUPUI, 90-75, tipping Jasick’s all-time head coaching record to 43-42. They’ve continued to showcase the execution that Illinois coach John Groce raved about.

There’s nothing overly complicated about the Mastodons’ offensive scheme, Jasick says. They employ good spacing, move the ball quickly and take quality shots. It’s no surprise that four players’ field-goal average crests 50 percent.

Sounds simple, but selflessness is required to get that type of engine humming. Thanks to thorough recruiting, Jasick and his staff have assembled a cast of characters up to the task. Eight different players have led the team in scoring so far; seven have done so in rebounding and assists. Eight players average at least 20 minutes per game, and none average more than 30. That’s a great way to lessen the blow of the loss of Frank Gaines, IPFW’s all-time leading scorer, who graduated last spring.

“Out of the core group, any one of us can be starters,” says Mastodons senior Pierre Bland, who leads the team in assists at 4.1 per game and boasts better than a 2:1 assist to turnover ratio. He almost grabbed a triple-double against IUPUI. “We don’t consider ‘bench players’; everybody accepts their role, and sticks to their strengths. The production doesn’t stop at any point during a game. We’re unselfish, and that’s what makes this team so special.”

Bland made 14 appearances off the bench a season ago, when he was a junior college transfer from Florida State College at Jacksonville. Luis Jacobo, a 6-5 swingman and fellow JuCo product (College of Central Florida) started all 33 games for IPFW in 2012-13. Jacobo missed the first three games this season to injury, and has come off the bench 12 times this term, but still leads the team in scoring at 15.1 points. 

“We’ve defined what our individual strengths are, as well as those of the group,” says Jasick. “That’s the easy part. The hard part is getting guys to agree with what you think their strengths are, and then getting them to buy in.” For Bland, that means getting everybody involved, and making sure he knows the strengths of each of his teammates.

The addition of 6-9, 295-pound Steve Forbes, another JuCo transfer, and the improvement of 6-8 sophomore Joe Reed have provided the Mastodons with a concerted interior presence, which opens things up for the perimeter players. Forbes is hitting an astounding 67.1 percent of his field goals.

That’s something IPFW lacked last season, says Jacobo, who’s hitting his shots at a distinguished 47 percent clip. “Now teams have to respect our posts, and when they collapse, we’ve got shooters, and we’ve been making open shots. It all starts down low,” Jacobo says. Three Mastodons, including Jacobo, have hit over 40 three-pointers this season.

Jasick calls upon a core of veteran leaders to help set an example. The Mastodons had the requisite goal-setting meeting in the offseason, but the upper-classmen showed the impetus to bring the team together in different ways. They’ll hold meetings in which the discussion often doesn’t breach winning or losing. The team’s core spent the summer on campus, so they’re comfortable enough to raise hard truths when the situation calls for it. 

Rather, they talk about consistency, about the importance of steering clear of distractions throughout the year. They don’t get too high or too low, approaching analysis with a cool head. They realizing full well that these brush strokes create a bigger picture.

They know they can hang with the likes of Illinois or Dayton (a one-point loss on the road in the season opener), because each player uses the same all-out approach. Each Mastodon attacks the glass (both Jacobo and Bland have joined Reed and Forbes with 10-rebound games) and they get after it on the defensive end (Bland has seven games with three-plus steals.)

IPFW was ranked sixth in the preseason Summit League poll, something that the Mastodons took as a sign of disrespect. They thought they belonged in the top 3, and they used it as fuel to fire this strong start in conference play. They took down perennial postseason contenders and conference rivals North Dakota State and South Dakota State in a three-day span in early January. “We saw those as statement games,” Jacobo says. “If they were ranked higher than us, then we thought, ‘Let’s see what they’ve got.’ But those are just two games; we can’t mess around and lose after.”

They head to the Dakotas in early February for the return legs against the Bison and Jackrabbits. “We’re excited where we are,” Jasick says. “Hopefully we can continue to build.”