Jags Looking to Take the Next Step

Image courtesy of IUPUI Athletics

IUPUI is definitely playing better basketball as the month of January draws to a close. The Jaguars play hard and keep coming at their Horizon League foes for a full 40 minutes. They are shooting the ball better, playing with more confidence, and on any given night a number of different Jags can light up the scoreboard on the offensive end.

Mulitple HoriZone Roundtable dignitaries have shared that this IUPUI team is fun to watch. There are geniune reasons to be positive.

All of this is true, but it is also true that at some point this season IUPUI needs to take the next step. The Jaguars need to win a League game for the good of the program.

Moral victories have a short shelf-life. IUPUI’s last four games fall into that category and that’s not a bad thing. They’ve played decidedly better. Fans and supporters have to like the direction the Jags are headed. But if the Jaguars truly want to make the objective argument that they are building something better going into next season, finishing winless in Conference play is not an option.

Even last year’s squad, which was extremely short-handed and clearly not as talented as this 2022-23 team, managed to get a Horizon League win.

Between impressing recruiting and transfer targets, building up student support, and establishing a wider fan base, at some point Matt Crenshaw and company have to be able to show more than just ‘be patient’ smoke and ‘trust-me’ mirrors. Having a plan will suffice for a while, but eventually there must be evidence that the plan is working.

On Wednesday IUPUI took Purdue Fort Wayne (14-9, 6-6) down to the wire. After playing to a 40-40 draw at half-time, the Jaguars found themselves trailing 68-57 with 5:29 remaining. Instead of folding, however, the Jags came roaring back and a Jlynn Counter three with 1:49 left cut the lead to two (74-72). IUPUI wasn’t able to get any closer but the Jags have shown multiple times this season that they aren’t willing to go quietly into the night – they are going to fight until the very end. (They would do it again Sunday.)

Sophomre Guard Jlynn Counter paced IUPUI with 27 against PFW, his third consecutive 20-point outing. Junior Forward John Egbuta added 14 and Freshman Guard Vincent Brady II chipped in with 12.

Unfortunately the injury bug continues to be a factor for the Jags as Graduate Forward Chris Osten went down about 7 minutes in with an appearant lower-leg injury. (He did not play Sunday.) Jonah Carrasco played a season-high 31 minutes in Osten’s stead and contributed 5 points, 5 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 blocks and a steal.

Sunday’s match-up with Cleveland State, who is among four teams fighting for the top spot in the Horizon League, started off roughly for the Jags. But again IUPUI found a way to get back into it and they gave themselves a chance at the end. The Vikings jumped out to an early 19-9 advantage and kept the Jaguars at arms-length throughout the first half. By halftime the Cleveland State lead ballooned to 47-32. CSU opened the second half with another run and their lead reached a game-high 20 (60-40) at the 14:29 mark.

Led largely by the three-point shooting of Armon Jarrard the Jags were able to claw (almost) all of their way back. A Boston Stanton III triple with 3:01 left made it 70-67 CSU, but that would be as close as IUPUI would get. Jarrard connected on 5 of 7 triples en route to a game-high 22 points, besting his previous career scoring high by six.

The competitive Jags have been in a position to win at the end of four consecutive league games. The next logical step in this sequence is learning to close. Milwaukee, for example, is a team with a nose for wins. The Pathers know what to do and they know when to do it. They have a good sense for those pivotal moments in games. IUPUI can’t allow moments to get too big for them. Instead they have to go out and take what they want. And what they want is a win.

There is also the obvious step of not digging themselves large holes from which they must subsequently climb out. Clearly that is not a long-term strategy that correlates highly with success.

IUPUI continues to be their own worst enemy by turning the ball over too frequently. The Jags turned it over 16 times in the loss to Cleveland State, although you have to give CSU credit as their energetic defense made life difficult for the Jags. Also, it is not an excuse, but IUPUI is playing without a true point guard, which doesn’t make things any easier.

Additionally, the Jags shot a combined 27 of 45 (.600) from the free throw line in last week’s games. IUPUI can’t afford to leave that many points on the table.

The Jaguars will have two opportunists this week to take that all-important next step. They will return home to Indiana Farmer’s Coliseum on Thursday to host the Milwaukee Panthers (15-7, 9-3), followed by a Saturday tilt with the Green Bay Phoenix (2-21, 1-11).

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