(THE ALMANAC)

It was a February to remember for the Purdue Fort Wayne Mastodons. Once the calendar flipped, this veteran-laden squad suddenly looked invincible — and for the final nine games of the regular season, that’s exactly what they were. An improbable nine-game win streak vaulted the Mastodons from 6-6 to 15-6 in league play, securing a share of the Horizon League title belt with Cleveland State. For head coach Jon Coffman, it marked his fourth season amassing 18 or more wins since becoming head honcho in 2014. Such success begets higher expectations, as does a returning roster that looks eerily similar to last year’s co-champs. A quartet of seasoned grad students will lead the charge — Damian Chong Qui, Jarred Godfrey, Bobby Planutis and Ra Kpedi — along with true senior and reigning Horizon Sixth Man of the Year, Deonte Billups. Coffman’s persistent patience with this nucleus finally paid dividends. Granted, Purdue Fort Wayne couldn’t seal the deal in the Horizon League Tournament, resulting in the Mastodons being awarded a respectable CBI berth as a consolation prize. There’s unfinished business for this bunch of super duper seniors. Their loyalty to Coffman and this program shines through in a collective commitment for one last stand.

ROAD TO SUCCESS

This backcourt has it all. Ball handling, passing, defense — and of course, shooting. “I won’t recruit a perimeter player who can’t shoot it,” underscored Coffman. Put all of that together, and this perimeter crew checks every box. The black sheep of the bunch, the 5-8 Chong Qui is far smaller than his backcourt brethren. He was a revelation as an external hire last season. Coffman drooled over his potential as a table-setter from his time at Mount St. Mary’s, where ‘DCQ’ was cramped by a methodical half-court offense and poor spacing. Coffman set him loose last year, and, lo and behold, everything fell in place. Serving as the head of the snake, Chong Qui looked right at home in Coffman’s revved-up offense. Godfrey was a well-fed recipient of Chong Qui’s facilitation a year ago. No longer be[1]holden to wear both scorer and distributor hats, Godfrey flourished with Chong Qui as his sidekick. He put together a monster season, devastating opponents via lethal shot-making and decisive straight-line drives. At 6-5, his size, length and finishing touch (59.7 percent at the rim, per Hoop-Math) makes him a tough cover for smaller Horizon backcourts. Unsurprisingly, the power conference sharks were circling this summer, but Godfrey decided to stay put for one more rodeo in Fort Wayne. Billups did his damage in a super-reserve role last year, but he routinely clocked starters’ minutes in a thin rotation. He’s a natural replacement for Jalon Pipkins, the only lost starter from this past offseason. A sturdy two-way power guard, Billups was sorely missed in Purdue Fort Wayne’s’ anticlimactic postseason loss to Drake in the CBI. Coffman added two more bullets to the chamber in Radford transfer Quinton Morton-Robertson and D2 transfer Anthony Roberts. Morton-Robertson sat out last year but should see ample time at the point this season, potentially even alongside fellow diminutive dynamo Chong Qui. Coffman typically leans on bigger guards, but QMR’s ability to conduct an offense caught his eye, akin to the instincts that previously drew him to Chong Qui. Roberts, on the other hand, is an assertive scorer who torched the nets at the D2 level. Coffman is excited about Roberts’ multi-positional versatility on the defensive end, too. Up front, Planutis and Kpedi pair together like yin and yang. The lean, 6-8 Planutis is an inverted swing man armed with a pure shooting stroke (39 percent on 153 attempts from long distance last year). Kpedi, meanwhile, did the thankless work in the dirty areas, posting the fourth-best offensive rebounding rate in the Horizon last year. He was also the Mastodons’ best interior defender. The Mastodons dug in defensively last year, but this team will go as the offense goes. Everything starts with the prolific backcourt, the engine behind Purdue Fort Wayne’s Horizon League-leading 3-point and 2-point field goal percentages in 2022. The continuity in the lineup is crucial. “Our worst teams are the ones we want to run stuff for. The best ones are the ones that can read and react,” said Coffman. He believes this rendition is engraved with the right ‘read and react’ instincts, which is more in tune with his utopian offensive vision. Specifically, he wants to veer away from set plays in favor of individual player freedom of movement, and this talented backcourt has the chops to bring it to life.

POTENTIAL POTHOLES

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. But what if nothing’s broken? It’s rare to find a defending conference champion welcome back four starters and the reigning Sixth Man of the Year. If there’s a blemish to be found on last year’s resume, it’s the Mastodons’ discouraging performances against stiffer competition. Per the final NCAA team sheets, they played a grand total of two Quadrant 2 games all season — Minnesota in early November and Drake in the CBI — and dropped both in noncompetitive fashion. Purdue Fort Wayne even stumbled in Quadrant 3 bouts, winning only a third of its tilts against like-minded and lesser competition. The truth is, a gaudy record against the bot[1]tom quartile of the country buoyed the Mastodons’ overall record. Did the Mastodons simply catch the Horizon off guard last year? Coffman knows the perils of morphing from the hunter to the hunted, but he’ll breathe easy with such a sturdy roster foundation intact. The experience and maturity here can be the antidote to any mental lapses in 2023.

KEY DEPARTURES

JALON PIPKINS (13.5 ppg, 3.2 rpg, 2.1 apg)

KEY NEWCOMERS

QUINTON MORTON-ROBERTSON (transfer, Radford)

ANTHONY ROBERTS (transfer, Saint Cloud State)

DEANGELO ELISEE (transfer, Triton College)

THE X-FACTOR

On paper, this is not a team that oozes defensive destruction. The reality is, Purdue Fort Wayne boasted the Horizon’s top defensive unit on a per possession basis last year — juxtapose that next to the seventh-ranked offensive unit, and your brain might twist into a pretzel. One interpretation of that conundrum is as follows: The Mastodons may have been uncharacteristically inefficient on offense last year, but shockingly strong on the other end. Coffman’s pedigree as an offensive guru, meshed with this dynamite backcourt, leaves little to worry about in terms of putting points on the board. It comes down to whether the defensive effectiveness sustains. Coffman is nervous about what a post-Pipkins era looks like. He wore the ‘defensive stopper’ badge while doubling as a potent bucket-getter on the other end. However, Coffman is confident last year’s defensive effort was no fluke. The coach isn’t keen on gumming up his offense with slow-footed bigs, precisely why he entrusts the backbone of this defense to Planutis and Kpedi. They aren’t towering giants, but this duo moves well laterally and recovers in help side rotations in due time. The ace in the hole may be Deangelo Elise, a monster shot-blocker from the JUCO circuit. Coffman said Elise was initially pegged to backfill Kpedi’s spot, but Kpedi opted to take advantage of his bonus COVID year. That arms Coffman with two proven paint deterrents in the middle. Finally, Coffman underscored the impact Chong Qui delivered on the defensive end, too. Size limitations aside, he set the tone last year in what Coffman described as a more aggressive man-to-man front the perimeter. In essence, Coffman made no wholesale changes to his defensive playbook. He simply dialed up the aggression and leaned on Chong Qui’s spark to lead by example.

THE OUTLOOK

Fresh off last year’s share of the conference title, this grizzled group of vets will start in the pole position of the 2023 Horizon League race. The quest for a second straight regular season title is meaningful, but there’s bigger aspirations for this group. This is your annual reminder that Purdue Fort Wayne has never been dancing. Ever. With a proven batch of winners back for another go-round, is this the year the Mastodons finally get over that hump?