BY MATT CRAIG | BALL STATE SPORTS LINK
As a new college basketball season gets under way, few programs in the country enter with more excitement and anticipation than the Ball State Cardinals.
Expectations are the highest they have ever been in the tenure of fourth-year head coach James Whitford. During last week’s Sports Link LIVE, he said with confidence: “I think we’re starting this year in the best shape we’ve been of any of the four.”
The preseason Mid-American Conference coaches poll backs up his claim, projecting Ball State to finish second in the MAC West and receiving 12 first place votes of a possible 36, both far better than what the Cardinals have received in Whitford’s three previous seasons.
It’s time to get to know this year’s team and exactly why fans’ excitement level is so high before the season opens Friday against the Billikens of Saint Louis.
Every week of the season, we’re going to take a look at the three biggest storylines surrounding Ball State Men’s Basketball, categorized in order of importance the same way basketball shots are: first a basic layup, then a mid-range jumper and finally a bomb from deep three-point range.
The Layup: The most obvious difference in this year’s team from Whitford’s previous is the continuity of the roster. Four starters and seven letter-winners return from a squad that brought home 21 wins and earned the school’s first postseason appearance since 2002.
Persons comes from Northern Kentucky where he was named the 2015 Atlantic Sun Conference freshman of the year, and Teague was named to the Indiana All-Star team in his senior year of high school.
“There’s just less new guys that are kind of learning from the beginning,” Whitford said. For a team that’s as process-oriented as Ball State, experience is critical. Yet it is something that none of Whitford’s previous teams have enjoyed.
Senior Franko House will be a four-year starter, while juniors Sean Sellers and Francis Kiapway will have received starts in three years. Players accounting for 76% of the team’s scoring production from a season ago have returned, including five of the top six scorers.
Outside of the statistics, the continuity can be seen in the chemistry and on-court leadership that has already been seen in preseason practices.
“It’s so easy to have great chemistry when you have guys like Franko to lead us, and Francis and myself,” Persons said on Sports Link LIVE.
The Mid-Range Jumper: The second and slightly more surprising strength that the Cardinals have at their disposal is their talent level, especially at the defensive end of the floor.
One statistic that goes unheralded was Ball State’s field goal percentage defense, which at 40.5% ranked second in the MAC and 40th nationally.
Interestingly, despite an increased tempo all across college basketball, Ball State trended the other direction ranking as the 40th slowest team in the country. When combined the stingy defense, that leads to just allowing 66.8 points per game, first in the conference and 56th nationally. The style favored the team, which won 16 of the 20 contests in which they held opponents under 70 points.
While defense is a lot about how a coach schemes and matches up with opponents, it’s impossible without talented and committed players.
Recruiting in the state of Indiana is a blessing and a curse. While the there is an abundance of talented young players, there are also 10 in-state Division 1 basketball programs and hundreds more out-of-state schools who come in looking to steal away prospects. In this crowded landscape, Whitford has managed to excel.
Five former Indiana All-Stars are on the roster, the most in school history. Sellers, Persons and Tyler come from the 2014 class, Teague from the 2015 class and freshman Kyle Mallers from 2016.
For perspective, Ball State has landed more Indiana All-Stars over the past three classes than any other school, compared to three now playing for Purdue and Butler and two for Indiana.
“I feel like our talent level is the highest it’s been, so I’m excited,” Whitford said.
That talent edge has never been more important, because of the extremely competitive Mid-American Conference, ranked by Kenpom as the ninth best conference in the country.
“This is my 15th season in the league,” Whitford said. “I’ve never seen it as high as ninth.”
The conference is famous for its parity, evidenced by its highest ranked team, Akron, only coming in 88th in the latest RPI rankings.
With every team reaching a similarly high level, it’s going to be the slightest edges that make the big difference come conference play. Which is where the depth of talent will really benefit the Cardinals.
If the trend holds from previous years, fans can expect to see a deep rotation. This plays into the defensive strength mentioned earlier, as fresh bodies rotate in and out in shorter spans.
Also Senior Ryan Weber, Sellers and Mallers all pace the perimeter standing above 6-feet-6 inches tall, allowing for switching with both bigger post players and smaller guards. That versatility allows for many different effective lineups on both ends of the floor.
FROM DEEP! The Three-Pointer: In a move of completely planned irony, the first three-pointer of the season will be self-referencing. Ball State’s biggest strength — and also its x-factor — will be its three-point shooting.
Proficiency from three-point range has been a hallmark of Whitford’s teams.
The combined 538 threes attempted over the past two seasons is the most in any two-year span in school history since the inception of the three-point line, and last season’s 305 makes from deep was just five shy of a school single-season record. The team was ranked 29th nationally in three pointers made and 52nd in three-point percentage.
From a strictly personnel standpoint, it’s difficult to find a single player who isn’t capable of stepping out and knocking down threes. Centers Trey Moses and graduate transfer Doudou Gueye would be the obvious choices, but Moses did knock down three long bombs last season.
Opposing teams will have a very difficult time game-planning for four players who shot better than 35% from deep last season, two of which in Weber and Kiapway that shot better than 40%.
The major benefit for Ball State, as most teams in the NBA have learned, is floor spacing offensively.
Everything on the offensive end becomes easier, including dribble-drive actions for a talented penetrator in Persons, or off-ball screen plays and misdirections bigs like Moses.
One final thing to keep in mind is the principle of variance.
ESPN’s Peter Keating and Jordan Brenner’s study of variance has confirmed statistically what we knew from watching games: teams that shoot a lot of threes, play a fast pace, grab a lot of offensive rebounds and cause turnovers have a lot of variance in their possible outcomes.
While Ball State isn’t all the way down the spectrum the way Shaka Smart’s old VCU teams were, they are leaning in that direction. Inconsistency was responsible for many of Ball State’s ups and downs last season, and will likely affect them in some measure this year.
Overall? There’s a lot to be optimistic about in Muncie.
The program stands at a crossroads, with years of development bringing them to the point at which they are ready to make the leap.
But will they?