Mastodons' greatest will never admit it
ELIZABETH WYMAN | For The Journal Gazette
The ball was going to John Konchar. The shot was going in. It was just a matter of how No. 55 was going to notch the game-winner.
“The best thing that coaches can do is give the ball to their most dynamic player and give them space to work,” Purdue Fort Wayne men's basketball coach Jon Coffman said.
Seven seconds left, top of the key, one dribble through his legs and a slight stutter-step to his left Konchar elevated over his defender.
The fifth-year senior had made four 3s already and he scored 22 of the Mastodons' final 26 points to tally a career-high 38 points.
It was good defense, but the guard was in a zone and he wasn't going to miss a go-ahead 3 with 0.8 second left in OT to lift the Mastodons over North Dakota State 90-87 this season.
“I just kept making everything, so I might as well just shoot it again,” Konchar said. “If you make your first two, it's going to be a lot easier than if you miss your first two.”
Looking at his face you would've thought he missed. Not even the slightest smirk, which on a rare day makes an appearance when addressing media, comes across Konchar's face.
Game-winners, clutch shots and total domination have just been part of Konchar's storied college career.
But how does a kid from West Chicago with two Division I offers become PFW's all-time leading scorer, arguably the most efficient player ever in the Summit League, garner attention from 17 NBA teams and have the third-seeded Mastodons poised to make a run at a league championship without many college basketball fans even knowing his name?
That's how he wants it.
Coffman remembers the exact moment he realized Konchar was something special. Third game of his redhsirt freshman season, a 19-year-old Konchar notched his first double-double with 28 points and 11 rebounds in a road win over Austin Peay.
It's what Coffman noticed hours after the game that had him in awe.
“I pop through the weight room in the morning as I'm walking over to Kettler Hall and there's John just sitting on the pull-up bar just pumping them out,” he said. “It's like 8:15 in the morning, and I knew we had something special there with his work ethic.”
Konchar insists he slept a little after returning home at 4 a.m., but he'd rather be in the weight room than in his bed.
“I knew I had to get stronger to be able to excel in this sport,” Konchar said. “I knew I was able to score, but if I had a lot more weight on me it was going to be easier.”
During his redshirt season Konchar lived in the weight room. He put on 42 pounds, borderline obsessing over his physique. At one point he was squatting 315 pounds on game days. He's since toned it back.
“I didn't know how he did it and then I'd see him leaving our apartment at 6 or 7 a.m. to go lift before we had team weights and workouts,” fellow senior and former roommate Kason Harrell said. “I've never had a teammate that worked that hard before. He's just all in on everything that we do.”
His real body transformation secret came at the hands of a cardboard white box and a pair of chopsticks.
“We would go to the weight room, play basketball a little bit and three times a week go to Panda (Express),” he said.
Double orange chicken and fried rice three times a week is far from what strength and conditioning coach Kevin Rudolphi would advise most players, but that was Konchar's and former teammate Nick Mochetti's go-to. It helped them pack on the pounds.
Rudolphi has witnessed Konchar morph from a lanky freshman boy to a 6-foot-5, 210-pound man.
“He's that rare combination of drive, work ethic, skill and athleticism,” Rudolphi said. “There's not too many John Konchars out there.”
One of a kind
About five rows up at the Gates Center sit Jim and Jan Konchar, John's parents. On two free throws in an overtime loss to Omaha on Jan. 24, their son became PFW's all-time leading scorer, passing Frank Gaines (1,841 points).
The crowd stands to recognize John, and Jim proudly shakes hands of those who know John's his son.
“He doesn't want to be a star,” Jim Konchar said. “He blends in and fits in and doesn't like getting noticed.”
West Chicago is 40 miles west of downtown Chicago, about 31/2 hours from Fort Wayne.
Jim and Jan Konchar have been to every home game this season and a number of away games.
His senior year of high school, John became West Chicago High School's all-time leading scorer with 1,551 points.
“His game was always really good and I was just shocked that none of the other colleges saw it,” Jim said.
Shocked because his parents, brother Peter and sister Jen, have watched the youngest Konchar make plays on the court since he first picked up a basketball in second grade.
“He could dribble the ball faster than these kids could run,” Jim said.
John holds a personality about as stoic and enigmatic as one can get. Regardless of what's happening in a game, John's just not an emotional player, which works to his advantage.
“He can dunk on somebody and a lot of people will get T'd up because they stare him down or whatever, but he's not the guy to do that,” teammate Matt Holba said. “He's going to dunk on you and get back and play defense and steal the next pass and go dunk on you again.”
When a basketball is in his hand he's all business, but off the court his sarcastic, aloof persona emerges.
Konchar's unique size allows him to play multiple positions, excelling on both ends – a matchup nightmare. This season he plays guard, alternating between the point and shooting guard, depending on how many minutes he's racked up in recent games (at one point he was 12th in the nation in minutes per game).
Konchar was unstoppable in both of the Mastodons' most notable wins – against Indiana in 2016 and 2017. Neither Thomas Bryant, now with the Washington Wizards, nor Juwan Morgan, likely a second-round NBA draft pick, could crack the code of Konchar and the ball screen.
“Because he's so good in ball screens and finding the open man, just bully plays,” Coffman said of Konchar's game. “He'll get a guy on him and just bully him to the rim, manhandle him.”
Konchar is averaging 19.7 points (second in the Summit League) and 8.5 rebounds (third in the Summit). He has attempted 64 more free throws than he did a season ago.
“He came in with a phenomenal skill set, we're not going to take credit for that, but what he's done here is evolve with his body and evolve with his aggressiveness at the college level,” Coffman said.
It's Friday morning and Konchar is at the Gates Center on campus. He's always at the Gates Center. He works in the equipment room doing laundry and sweeping floors a few times a week, but not today.
In reality, he only needs to be on campus for basketball activities and one Tuesday night class. He received his undergraduate degree in information technology last spring and is working toward his master's in organizational leadership.
He stopped by the trainer earlier. Practice isn't until much later. He doesn't need to be here.
But he wants to be. That's why when chatter arose a year ago at this time as to whether the Mastodons' superstar would be a grad transfer to a Power Five school, it was just that, chatter.
“Yeah, it worried me absolutely that he would transfer,” Coffman said. “You see it all over college basketball, there's an issue with our culture right now, the grass is always greener, but he's very comfortable here and the style of play really fits him.
“I was candid with a lot of the NBA scouts and said 'give me your opinion, is he better served to grad transfer and get to a higher level?' They said no one's ever been drafted as a grad transfer.”
Konchar's happy in Fort Wayne, and while the thought of transferring did cross his mind he never wanted to ruin a good thing.
“I knew for basketball reasons I was comfortable here,” he said. “I knew everything I was going to get, and I kind of just wanted to stay.”
That decision only allowed himself to etch his name further into the Purdue Fort Wayne and NCAA record books. Most recently he became the first player in NCAA Division I men's basketball history with 2,000 points, 1,000 rebounds, 500 assists and 200 steals.
He also has been invited to participate in the Portsmouth Invitational Tournament, a showcase for the nation's top collegiate seniors. Konchar is the first Mastodons player to receive an invitation to Portsmouth since David Simon in 2005. The four-day, 12-game tournament runs April 17-20 in Portsmouth, Virginia.
None of that even matters to Konchar, a four-time All-Summit League first-team member, as he knows the Mastodons have bigger goals in trying to win the program's first Summit League Tournament.
“Making March Madness would be awesome,” he said. “I feel like with this group we have a lot of contributors and it could really happen.”
Regardless, Konchar's going to play his game, crack his jokes and make game-winners at whatever level of basketball his abilities take him.
Whether you know his name or not doesn't bother him one bit.