It’s not easy being the new kid on the block.
For IUPUI, last season was one of settling into its new digs as a member of the Horizon League. Despite being to finish last in the preseason poll, the Jaguars finished in a tie for fifth with an 8-10 record.
This year is on track to be the best season of Jason Gardner’s five-year tenure, and IUPUI has continued to show the fit with the Horizon League might be better than many anticipated after the onset of the original announcement.
At 14-10, IUPUI has already matched their season high in wins under Gardner. The highlight of season was a win at Boston College in the second week of the season, which was the program’s first win over a high-major school since beating Seton Hall in 2008.
But if there were a game that was bigger than that, it was last Friday’s win over Northern Kentucky, who has become the class of the league since joining in 2015. IUPUI torched the league’s best defense for 83 points en route to one of the biggest wins of Gardner’s time in Indianapolis.
“It’s a great win for us because Northern Kentucky has shown that the past two or three years that they’re one of the top dogs in the conference,” Jason Gardner said following the win. “For us to come and be able to get this win gives us a lot of motivation to come out and keep it going for the rest of the year.”
“It was a great one. The way we won to be down eight or nine in the first half and then grind it out was really special and a lot of fun to be a part of,” senior guard DJ McCall said with a grin.
One of the key qualities of this year’s IUPUI team is resiliency. Only one of their five Horizon League losses has come by double digits, and they’ve shown ability to go on runs to get back into a game quickly. Much of that can be attributed to the increased talent level of this year’s team.
The star this year has been Camron Justice, a Vanderbilt transfer and former Mr. Basketball winner in Kentucky that has become a bonafide go-to guy for the Jaguars. The junior is averaging just under 20 points per game and has scored in double figures in all but one game this year.
Beyond Justice, there are seniors in McCall and Evan Hall that have been through the rigors of conference play and bring valuable leadership to the program. Guys like Grant Weatherford, Elyjah Goss, Jaylen Minnett and Ahmed Ishmail all fill their roles and bring something to the table every night.
“I’ve been saying this since the summer, but this is not only the most talented team that I’ve been on but also the toughest and most unselfish team that I’ve been on,” McCall said. “It’s really fun to play with these guys, especially as a senior after you have a chance to play with different teams, I’m lucky for this to be my last year and for us to be doing so well.”
The depth of talent on the team has made the grind of conference play manageable so far. But IUPUI has just become more comfortable in the league. The travel is significantly easier than it was in the Summit League. The team and coaching staff are growing more familiar with what their opponents are all about, what their teams run, and how to attack the league from game to game.
“You definitely know what to expect, especially going through the schedule a second time” Gardner said when discussing how the team has adjusted to an increased familiarity with the rest of the league. “The second time around everybody kinda knows what everyone is going to run. That second part is just hammering down on the small things like turnovers and offensive rebounds and trying to minimize the small mistakes.”
“We take it a game at a time, but our staff does a great job scouting and delivering scouting reports to us,” McCall said. “I feel like we’re prepared in terms of scouting and knowing personnel, it’s just on us to bring the effort and play our game.”
Another reason IUPUI has begun to feel settled into the Horizon League stems from the announcement that starting next year, the Horizon League Tournament will be held in Indianapolis at The Indiana Farmers Coliseum. The Horizon League’s headquarters is located in downtown Indianapolis, just minutes away from IUPUI’s campus. It provides a central location that makes for easy travel from almost every member school, and the venue is well suited to host the event.
“It’s huge. With the history of Indiana basketball from all the high school teams and then looking how the Pacers are doing, how IU, Purdue, Notre Dame are doing, with all that buzz and how good the league is top to bottom, the exposure that Indiana basketball brings and having it close to everyone in the league is a great opportunity for the state and program,” Gardner said.
But for now, the Jaguars are focused in the season. More importantly, they’re focused on staying in the hunt for the Horizon League title. The Jags are currently 6-5 in league play, putting them in a three-way tie for fourth place. However, they’re just two games back of first place — and a single game back of a tie for second — with a stretch of winnable games to close out the year should keep them in the mix.
How do they get it done? Cam Justice says it’s as simple as believing.
“Everybody talks about people buying in, well we’re at the point right now where we’re past buying in and it comes down to one thing: just believe. We feel like we’re a top team in the league.”
IUPUI will host Illinois Chicago on Saturday for a chance to sweep the season series. That would be win number 15 on the year, making it the best year of Jason Gardner’s tenure and a sign that life in the Horizon League is going as well as expected.