Savvy Purdue Fort Wayne sets scenes in March Madness and bigger things

Indianapolis – Consider some of John Kaufman’s coaching dynamics this season at Purdue Fort Wayne.

  • His starting lineup includes three graduate students, a fifth year student and a senior. Together, they have played 26 seasons of college basketball. It is the AARP college basketball team.

  • His leading scorer, Jared Godfrey, is an Eagle Scout. His second scorer, Bobby Blanotis, is working on his third score. The other forward, Ra Kpedi, is doing an internship as a stock analyst at a Fort Wayne bank. Once upon a time, the practice had to be changed to take the CFA exam. Kaufman would say, “How cool, that he shows up to rehearse in a suit?”

  • His team has four 1,000-point scorers and is quickly picking up a fifth.

  • His top scorers, Godfrey and Planotis, were solid gold at the free throw line. Planutis has shot 64 free throws in the past two years. I’ve lost two. Godfrey hit his first 37 Horizon League tries of the season before missing out.

  • Portal transport did not flow through Fort Wayne. Kaufman’s roster is back nearly the same as from last year’s Horizon League regular season champions. “They love the game, they love where we are, they love Fort Wayne, and that’s why they stayed,” Kaufman said. “Our Eagle Scout, he had eight power-5s in the Top 25 who gave him offers to go, and he probably missed out on a bunch of the NIL to stay with us.”

Put it all together and what do you have?

A veteran team who’s gone 12-7 so far and has penance on his mind. Mastodons – Is there a better title in all of Division I? – Crashed against Northern Kentucky in the Horizon League semifinals this past March. This meant no NCAA Tournament, which would have been a first for the program. The painful memories were fresh last week when Purdue defeated the Fort Wayne IUPUI last night at Indiana Farmers Coliseum, site of last spring’s Horizon Championship.

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“We still have a chip on our shoulder,” Godfrey said. “Last year we didn’t finish as much work as we knew we could get, so we all immediately made that decision to come back. I feel like I have unfinished business with this team. I felt something this morning at gameday practice, just walking here. Last time we were here We didn’t handle our business.”

Coffman is in his ninth season at Purdue Fort Wayne and has made his program attractive with a free offense that can translate to professional basketball and an atmosphere that fosters cohesion and connection with the Fort Wayne business community. He believes this combination helps his players with future recruitment, both on and off the field. So most of them remain.

John Conchar did and became the school’s leading scorer. “John came to us, and we were the only oath I could take,” Kaufman said. Next thing you know, he started for the Memphis Grizzlies.

Max Landis did. “He stayed when people were calling him while he was in my office to get ahead. He ended up being the Summit League Player of the Year.”

Godfrey did, though he’s the leading scorer for the conference champion and a graduate student, seemed like a prime candidate for a bigger fish through the transfer gate. “I’m not going to lie, it was a little tempting,” Godfrey said. “But at the end of the day, I built a great net in Fort Wayne. Basketball was handling itself. I like my role and how I can be myself and not have to play inside a box. It was a very quick decision for me.”

Jared Godfrey takes a free throw against Oakland.

So Kaufman will continue to chip away at his attack. At last count, the mastodons were in the top 16 nationally on 3 tries and attempts.

He will continue to forge links with the city’s business owners and movers. “Our goal is to get them to skip the first job and get the second job, so they don’t serve coffee, they receive coffee. And it worked. These guys know the power of Fort Wayne.”

He will continue his ideas for team building. “I don’t know if these things are wacky, but we’re investing in their life skills. We did a dance this summer. We do etiquette. We take the guys to Cedar Point (a theme park). We do golf lessons with our guys. Bobby is the first to say to them, “Coach is corny sometimes but he cares.”

These guys live in our offices. I feel like half of those guys are in our crew, the way we talk to them and the way we hang out.”

But can it get them where they want to go in March? Prior to University of Southern Indiana’s promotion this season, Purdue-Fort Wayne was the only Division I school in Indiana that had never played in the NCAA Tournament. To get there in 2023, the Mastodons will have to battle through a Horizon League that currently has a four-game tie for start, with Purdue Fort Wayne two games behind and tied for sixth. But the mastodons have already beaten two teams in front of them. It seems like a league where anything can happen.

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And if the experience had much to do with it, they would be a threat.

“They have poise about them,” Kaufman said. “I can talk to them in a different way. When we sit down and look at the video, it feels different.”

Echoing from a 57-43 loss to Northern Kentucky this past March is his 28.8 shooting percentage, including going 3-for-20 from his beloved 3-point range. “We have to be competitive and have a chance to win those matches when the three don’t hold back,” Kaufman said. “These guys have this burn, how do we win ugly when we need to?

This group is back on a mission. They wanted to do something special. They want to take us to our first NCAA Tournament. This is not to say that anything short does not equate to success. I’ve never been to the NCAA tournament or depression. But it will be really special with this group.”

So the old men of Fort Wayne have dreams of the future, even if some of them come in a three-piece suit.

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