SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — Luckily for Tony Jasick's sake, he doesn't coach baseball, where three strikes sends you shuffling and shamed. He coaches basketball, namely IPFW men's basketball, and his program gets a chance to swing for the fences tonight after failing at this juncture on three prior occasions.
The Mastodons routed state and league rival IUPUI Saturday 85-47 in the opening round of the Summit League Tournament before 3,153 fans at Sioux Falls Arena. The win puts Jasick's guys in tonight's semifinal matchup with No. 3 seed and hometown favorite South Dakota State (19-11), which beat No. 6 seed Western Illinois on Sunday. The game will air at 9:30 p.m. on ESPN 1380-AM and Fox College Sports.
IPFW (23-9) has made a habit this season of breaking through barriers. Its second-place conference finish was its highest ever.
Tonight the Mastodons get another chance to make history. But this time it will be with 6,000-plus Jackrabbit fans cheering against them.
Three times in the past six seasons, IPFW has won its initial postseason game. Three times it's returned home with nothing else to show for itself.
Last season, South Dakota State ended IPFW's season in the semifinal round, while Oakland (2010) and Oral Roberts (2008) did so previously. And each defeat was by double digits, just to add insult to injury.
But as IPFW has demonstrated all year, there is just something about this group that is different. It's different in that Jasick has assembled the deepest, most skilled and most athletic squad in school history.
“It shows, that goes without saying,” Jaguars coach Todd Howard said when asked whether this Mastodons team is the program's best he's seen.
And he's seen them all.
“For the majority of the year, when you're shooting 50 percent, 40 percent from behind the (three-point) line, they rebound at a high level, and they get a ton of points in the paint at a high level,” Howard said. “It's hard for the pendulum not to swing your way, even if you've got some shortcomings.”
IPFW does have its “shortcomings,” but not many.
The Mastodons are the worst free-throw shooting team in the Summit League, which could cost them at some point.
And if the officials don't allow 285-pound Mastodons center Steve Forbes to be active at both ends of the floor, it negates a huge part of the Mastodons game plan.
But against Howard's team, at least, the Mastodons haven't exhibited many weaknesses in three double-digit victories this season.
“The ball has gone in for them just about every night,” Howard said. “There are some offensive teams in our league that play really fast, kind of play haywire. (But) Fort Wayne makes quality shots.”
With the Jackrabbits coaching staff sitting courtside Saturday, IPFW made a lot of “quality shots,” and then some.
The Mastodons dominated the Jaguars inside (holding a 48-26 points-in-the-paint advantage), outside (they connected on 57 percent from the floor), with the ball (19 assists vs. just 10 turnovers) and while trying to get the ball (a 39-23 rebounding advantage).
This program, as Howard said, has never been better prepared to get to the championship game of this event than this season.
“I don't know if you can predict a school record for wins in August,” Jasick said.
“But I did think that we had brought together a nice team. I thought our talent level was pretty good. I thought that we recruited some guys with toughness.
“But you can't evaluate chemistry. You can't evaluate character, in terms of character of a team. In those intangible areas, we're as good as anybody out there.”
As good as South Dakota State today?
History says no, but the players and coaches within the IPFW have ignored history all season. Why not do it one more time?