UNO coach Derrin Hansen looks at the Indiana-Purdue-Fort Wayne basketball team and sees a mirror image of his own.
Except it's one of those fun-house mirrors, where the dimensions are stretched.
“They are fast and skilled,” Hansen said. “And they pose problems with their size. We like to play fast, too, but they're like a bigger version of us.”
Gates Sports Center, where IPFW has gone 9-1 this season, has been anything but a fun house for opponents. And that's where the Mavericks will venture for a 6 p.m. Summit League game Thursday.
“They're really talented,” Hansen said. “They beat North Dakota State at their place, and we all know the troubles we've had with that team.”
IPFW (16-6 overall) is tied with North Dakota State for first place in the Summit at 4-1.
The Mastodons' nonconference schedule included losses of 81-80 at Dayton and 72-71 at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi on baskets with 1.0 and 4.1 seconds left, respectively. They also lost 57-55 at Illinois after leading by nine early in the second half.
Skeptics could say that the Mastodons, whose schedule is ranked only the 302nd most difficult in the country, beat only one nonconference foe ranked higher than No. 250 (No. 171 Bowling Green). But then they opened league play by beating North Dakota State and South Dakota State at home, then went on the road and beat Denver. Those three teams were picked to finish first through third in the Summit.
IPFW, ranked No. 21 in the national mid-major poll, was the preseason choice to finish sixth.
“They've really taken a big step as a team,” Hansen said. “They're just better than people thought they were.”
The Mastodons rank second in the Summit and ninth in the country in field goal percentage at .496, and lead the Summit and rank 10th nationally in 3-point percentage at .407. They average 78.3 points per game.
They can spread you out with shooters such as freshman reserve guard Mo Evans (a league-best 48.2 percent from 3, on 40 of 83), Luis Jacobo (fifth in the Summit at 42.4 percent from 3, on 42 of 99) and Michael Kibiloski (10th in the league at 39.3 percent from 3, on 42 of 107).
Jacobo is 6-foot-5 and 215 pounds. Kibiloski is 6-7 and 245. Point guard Pierre Bland, who last year averaged 3.0 points, 2.9 rebounds and 2.7 assists, averages 10.1 points, leads the Summit in steals (1.9 per game) and is second in assists (4.3). He's 6-2 and 215.
And then there's center Steve Forbes, at 6-9 and 295. He averages 11.9 points and leads the league in field goal percentage at .671.
IPFW is a high-scoring team despite having to replace Frank Gaines, its All-Summit wing who was among the nation's top point producers the past two seasons.
The Mavs and Mastodons split the two-game series last year, with IPFW winning 96-78 in Fort Wayne and UNO claiming the return game 86-79. Gaines had 26 points in the win and 32 in the loss, while UNO's Justin Simmons scored 24 in the first game and 23 in the second.
Simmons, a player with similarities to Gaines, just returned to UNO's starting lineup in Saturday's win over South Dakota after coming off the bench for the previous 12 games. Simmons, a preseason All-Summit pick, is averaging just 9.6 points, down from 16.7 last season, and was slow to get fully healthy after an early-season back injury. Plus sophomore Marcus Tyus (averaging 9.2 points) was playing well as a starter.
Simmons “was more consistent over the previous three or four games, and it was time to get him back in there, and Marcus had done a great job,” Hansen said.
Hansen said both starting point guard Devin Patterson and backup sharpshooter Alex Phillips are at full strength now after being slowed by illness last weekend, when UNO lost to Denver and beat South Dakota.
Following Thursday's game, the Mavs head to IUPUI to complete the road trip and reach the halfway point of the Summit League season. Five of UNO's final seven league games will be at home.
“We've got to put all our marbles in the first game (of the road trip),” Hansen said, “and then one way or another we'll have to regroup and get ready for the second game.”