INDIANAPOLIS – True, Kentucky had its hands full having to go to Auburn Saturday. And yeah, Syracuse faced the perils of a visit to Duke. But want to know who had the toughest assignment in college basketball this weekend?
Applause, please, for the IUPUI Jaguars. All six of them.
Here on the other side of the tracks from the glittering powers of the ACC, SEC and Big Ten, life has been hard. You could have fit the active IUPUI team in an SUV Saturday. There were six able bodies for the Northern Kentucky game. On the sideline out of action were five players, sitting in a row in gray warmups, including four of the top eight scorers. No, it’s not what you think. Not a positive virus test among them. All are injured. “Half the team out with COVID? No, half the team was on the bench,” said guard Mike DePersia, who was one of the active six.
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But there’s more. IUPUI came into Saturday with a 1-16 record, the only victory against Division III Spalding before Thanksgiving. The Jaguars average under 51 points a game, the worst in the nation by nearly five points. They play hard, they keep plugging. You can tell that by the fact they rebound nearly equal with their opponents and their defensive numbers are decent. They. Just. Can’t. Score. The starting lineup Saturday averaged 30.6 points combined, or barely six points more than the nation’s individual leader, Antoine Davis of Detroit Mercy.
It didn’t end pretty, of course. Northern Kentucky 60, IUPUI 41. But if effort and the willingness to face long odds mean anything, here were Saturday’s champions. They were Rocky for a day.
So here’s an afternoon spent far away from the main stage of college basketball, where the lights aren’t bright but the spirit seems to be...
The mayor of Indianapolis is in the house. Joe Hogsett is a big basketball fan and has come to lend his support to the outmanned Jaguars. Thing is, only 794 people have, too. Let’s put it this way, when they play Dance Cam on the scoreboard during a timeout, any fan dancing has an excellent chance of being shown.
The Jaguars play their games in the Indiana Farmers Coliseum at the State Fairgrounds, one of the sites used for the NCAA tournament last spring. Oral Roberts upset Florida here. It is old enough to have once been a site for a campaign speech by John Kennedy. They play on top of an ice hockey rink. Pre-game warmups are a little odd, with only as many Jaguars as a hockey team puts at one time on that ice. “We didn’t have full lay-up lines. We had someone passing us the ball,” DePersia says later. “It felt like AAU a little bit, you’re going out there with five or six guys.”
Coach Matt Crenshaw’s pre-game message to his small band is a reminder that many times, players want a larger role. Well, this is the day. “What I told them is now is the time you know you’re going to play 30 minutes. You’ve got a chance to play free,” he says. “The biggest thing I wanted to share is nobody’s feeling sorry for us. That’s part of adversity. Sports are a life lesson.”
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The Horizon League game is close for a while, but 7-9 Northern Kentucky steadily takes command. Crenshaw doesn’t have a lot of subbing options. “I look over and a guard’s tired, so I have to put in my center,” he recalls afterward. “But it’s adversity. It happens.”
The IUPUI offense encounters familiar woes. A dunk is missed. A shot hits the side of the backboard. One Jaguar lifts the ball to launch a wide-open 3-pointer from the wing, but the ball slips out of his hands and spins backward out of bounds. The halftime score is 33-13. For the season, the Jaguars are averaging 22 points a first half.
“It’s tough at times obviously if the ball’s not going in to stay locked in on defense, but that’s what Coach preaches,” DePersia says later. “Just keep playing defense, keep making stops.”
Which they do. The second half is nearly even, 28-27, but the final result is inevitable. The record is now 1-17, but IUPUI’s journey in search of brighter days goes on. But it's not easy when the team's field goal percentage is 37.4.
“One of these games we’re going to see it go in,” Crenshaw says. “But we have to do our part. I think we missed six layups today, two of them were dunks. We have to make those. Then it wouldn’t put so much pressure on us.”
What must a coach have through all this? “Patience. Positivity. And just being able to see the game,” Crenshaw says. “Every game, I try to take something away and learn from it. After this, I’ll be prepared for any scenario: injuries, COVID, whatever in the future.”
IUPUI has come close a couple of times — squandering a 10-point lead with seven minutes left in a 60-57 loss to UTSA, and getting edged by two points by UIC. But other nights have been especially long for a team that has not broken 50 nine times. Crenshaw has tried to respond with a mixture of being upbeat, but also direct.
“I always fall back on being a player. Hey, you know you got your butt kicked. Point out the things that help the team. The message always has to be positive because you’ve got to grow and get better.”
It’s a full plate for a coach’s first year, but Crenshaw’s heart is squarely with IUPUI. He’s an alum and own’s the biggest basket in school history. His last-second jumper sent the Jaguars past Valparaiso for the 2003 Mid-Continent tournament title, and the program’s first — and still only — NCAA berth. The coach he beat that night was Scott Drew, who has gone on to bigger things at Baylor.
Meanwhile, Crenshaw is hoping for more bodies by Monday’s game with Brescia of the NAIA, which seems like a great chance for a second victory.
“I want to petition the NCAA and see if I can get some older guys in here,” he jokes, and then nods toward his nearby sports information director. “Try to get him in there and let him play offense.”
His junior guard seeks to look at the bright side of Saturday, too, when it felt a little like six Jaguars against the world. “At this point, you kind of have to have fun with it," says DePersia, who went 39 minutes with 10 points, five assists and two steals. “It’s something we’re going to remember. Hopefully this (injury wave) doesn’t last too long, but we’re going to battle no matter what.”
At IUPUI, they smile through lean times and being as outnumbered as Custer, and vow to keep working through the darkness of 50 points a game and a 1-17 record. Who else in college basketball had to do that Saturday?