FORT WAYNE – The Mad Ants chose to play the Reno Bighorns in the first round of the D-League postseason, seeing them as the easiest available prey. As much as Reno Bighorns coach Joel Abelson would like to parlay the slight into bulletin-board material, he can’t really blame Fort Wayne for the selection.
The Bighorns, whose 27-23 record is worst among the eight playoff teams, lost 10 of their last 14 games.
“Other than the distance they’ll have to travel, I wasn’t surprised,” Abelson said.
But Abelson said his team is “a prideful group” that will give the Mad Ants all they can handle in the best-of-three series that begins Friday at the Reno Events Center.
“We’re not going into the playoffs to roll over,” Abelson said.
The Mad Ants won the D-League’s regular-season title by going a franchise-best 34-16 and winning 17 of their last 20 games. They were able to choose their first-round opponent from among seeds 4 through 8.
The Mad Ants have the D-League’s all-time leading scorer, Ron Howard, who averaged 20.5 points, 4.3 rebounds and 4.3 assists in the regular season. Tony Mitchell averaged 20.2 points and 4.9 rebounds for the Mad Ants, who will play host in Game 2 at 7 p.m. Sunday at Memorial Coliseum.
“They have a veteran group, and their guys have been in this league multiple years. A lot of our guys know them,” Abelson said. “They run a ton of different stuff, so they’re hard to game plan for.”
The Bighorns’ chances of success may rest largely on their health. Point guard Sundiata Gaines, who averages 15.4 points and 5.3 assists, missed four of the last five games with an undisclosed injury and will be a game-time decision.
Walker Russell, who played for Fort Wayne from 2006 to 2013, has missed three games with a calf injury but should be back after averaging 7.5 points and 4.4 assists.
The teams have met once, Dec. 26 at the Coliseum, and Trey McKinney-Jones’ 28 points and 10 rebounds led the Mad Ants to a 114-89 win. Game 1 begins at 2 p.m. Reno time – 5 p.m. in Fort Wayne – because of a volleyball event occupying multiple venues.
The Mad Ants have taken part in only one playoff series in their seven seasons, getting swept by favored Santa Cruz last year. The Bighorns have Willie Reed, a forward under contract with the NBA’s Sacramento Kings, who has averaged 13.6 points and 7.6 rebounds in five games since the Kings moved him from Springfield to Reno.
Fort Wayne can answer with a bevy of big men, including Sadiel Rojas, Tim Ohlbrecht, Chris Porter and Will Frisby.
“We have to go out and play well – extremely well – to win,” Abelson said. “Yeah, they picked us and our guys know they picked us. They’re prideful professionals. But once the ball goes up, we have to follow our game plan and guard them in a way we think will be successful. We still have to put the ball in the hoop.”