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Psst... Jason Gardner is quietly building a Summit League contender

Jason Gardner is molding his program to fit his vision, and IUPUI has a team that is going to be in the mix for the conference title this seaosn.

Frank Victores-USA TODAY Sports

Don’t look now, but Jason Gardner is building a basketball program at IUPUI that is on the verge of breaking through. Yes, that IUPUI program that has gone a combined 23-40 in Gardner’s first two seasons as a college head coach. So why exactly is there reason for optimism for the program? In order to see what the Jaguars are doing, one must look beyond the numbers.

When Gardner was given the head coaching job in the spring of 2014, it was considered a great hire for a program that yearned for the stability of the Ron Hunter years.

Josh Pastner, who had Gardner on his staff for a season at Memphis, spoke highly of Gardner’s basketball acumen.

"He's sharp. He has a high basketball I.Q. He's hardworking. He's always been around winning. He knows how to win. He's a winner."

Alas, having all those traits doesn’t guarantee a successful coaching career. You have to build a program from the ground up, especially when it’s a small program like IUPUI’s that has only been a Division 1 school since the turn of the millennium. Jason Gardner is doing just that.

Making it cool to stay home

In Indiana, basketball is in your blood. The high school gyms are bigger than most college arenas, and the sport is as much of a part of childhoods as learning to read and write are. Believe me, my first coherent sentence was "Dunk it."

College basketball in Indiana is king. With ten different programs in the state, including national powerhouses like Indiana, Butler, and Notre Dame, schools like IUPUI get overlooked by fans and players. In order to succeed, Jason Gardner would have to change that perception.

Indiana always produces a plethora of Division 1 basketball recruits, and regularly has prospects that are ranked highly or make the NBA. Recruits of that level aren’t even going to consider playing at a small school like IUPUI, so coaches have to rely on talent that might get overlooked.

Gardner made it a point to prioritize in-state recruiting, especially Indianapolis. Ron Hunter built a lot of his success from recruiting local kids. He thinks Gardner can thrive in that aspect of the job.

"I do believe you have to have somebody who knows the city, and Jason does. If you don't recruit Indianapolis and make Indianapolis a priority, you can't win at that job."

His high school coach thinks he's going to be great with the families of recruits:

"He's going to be endearing with little kids," Mitchell said. "Recruits' mothers are going to like him, and fathers. Grandparents are going to like him."

As the program continues to grow, IUPUI’s presence in the local recruiting scene will grow with it. It’s already beginning to take place, as IUPUI has brought in seven in-state recruits since 2014, including four from Indianapolis and the surrounding area. Gardner's personality and ability to build strong relationships with recruits will make him a force on the local recruiting scene.

Working the transfer market

Mid-major basketball programs are prone to being victims of the transfer "epidemic" in college basketball. Players often leave schools in search of more playing time or higher ranked programs if their talent level allows so. At IUPUI, Jason Gardner has used it to his advantage.

Last season, transfers played a major role for the Jaguars. Darell Combs was their leading scorer and main facilitator in his first season since transferring to IUPUI. Matt O’Leary, Nick Osborne, and Jordan Pickett each played significant minutes after transferring from Loyola, where they originally played for Gardner while he was an assistant.

This season, Gardner is bringing in even more reinforcements. Ron Patterson is eligible to play this year after returning to his hometown from Syracuse. Patterson is a high-major talent, but the former Indiana commit will look to thrive in a prominent role for the Jaguars this season.

Speaking of transfers returning home, Kellon Thomas will play his final year of eligibility in his hometown. He will provide another veteran presence in the backcourt, and is coming off a season in which he averaged 12.3 points per game for Kent State. Stephan Bennett is also playing his final season for the Jaguars after spending his last four years at Robert Morris.

Combining established veterans with young incoming talent is a recipe that could allow IUPUI to remain competitive while developing their youth. Next year, the combination of talent and experience should be good enough to make them a dark horse contender in the Summit League.

A player’s system

One of the reasons that helps Gardner attract talent is the offensive system that he’s put in place. He’s instilled a guard oriented system similar to the one he thrived in when he won National Player of the Year in 2003 at Arizona. He wants a free flowing system that allows his players to play up-tempo and in the open floor.

A system like Gardner’s is attractive to players because it allows them to do what feels natural rather than feeling confined to meticulous system. This style of play is just as important to recruiting as a recruit’s relationship with the coach. Players like the freedom of being able to play on the fly and let their talent show. That’s why the Jaguars’ roster is deep with guards and wing players. In Gardner's system, even the frontcourt players have the ability to make reads from the perimeter and put the ball on the floor.

Last season, IUPUI played at a pace of 71.7 possessions per game (140 of 351). I’d look for that number to increase this season. They will likely use a lot of 3-guard lineups, and may even use four if it provides a favorable matchup. There aren’t many teams in the Summit League that can match the athleticism of the Jaguars roster.

Overall

The usual suspects will likely be near the top of the Summit League next season. IPFW, South Dakota State, and North Dakota State will have strong rosters, and have shown that they can get it done in conference play.

However, don’t count out the Jaguars. They surprised a lot of people last season by finishing fourth in conference play, and will be hungry for more next season. Jason Gardner has his best team going into his third season on the sidelines, and it fits the mold of how he wants to play. IUPUI is building a program that is going to be competitive for years to come. Don’t be surprised if they win their first Summit League title next year. They’re ready to make the leap, and won’t be going away anytime soon as long as Jason Gardner is there.