BY CONNOR ONION | Radio Voice of Ball State Basketball on WCRD 91.3 FM
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Since We Last Met
Buffalo’s Alumni Arena is one of the most daunting gyms to travel to in the Mid-American Conference.
Heading into Ball State’s trip there in mid-January, the Bulls had only suffered 10 defeats in the last 47 games at home. Ball State notched defeat number 11 on January 14th.
Thanks to six double figure scorers Ball State snapped a three-game losing streak against Buffalo by knocking off the Bulls 92-77. Jeremie Tyler, Ryan Weber and Tayler Persons each had 17 points to pace the Cardinals.
The loss dropped two-time defending MAC Tournament Champion Buffalo to 1-3 on the season and provided Ball State with its second straight MAC win after an 0-2 start.
Ball State (15-7, 6-3) has continued its stellar play since the trip to up-state New York, winning six of its last seven since a 0-2 start. The Cardinals currently reside atop the MAC West and second overall behind 1st place Akron (9-0).
Meanwhile, Buffalo (10-12, 4-5) has continued to be plagued by inconsistency.
At their best, the Bulls have gone on the road to beat MAC rivals Eastern Michigan and Kent State.
At their worst, Buffalo fell to 8-16 Robert Morris and cross-town rival Canisus.
High Scoring Offense
The magic number for Ball State in conference play has been 80.
In each of the six MAC wins for the Cardinals they’ve reached the 80-point plateau.
In two of the three conference losses – both to Bowling Green – Ball State was dragged into a grind-it-out style resulting in games played in the low 70s.
Ball Head Coach James Whitford’s greatest objection to his team’s play in the non-conference was its defensive breakdowns.
Statistically, Ball State has made improvements on the defensive end of the floor, ranking second in defensive field goal percentage during the MAC slate.
Despite these improvements, the blue print has been an up-tempo, high-scoring offensive attack. The Cardinals are averaging 84 points per game in conference play, second best in the MAC behind Central Michigan.
The Cardinals averaged 70 points per night a year ago, tenth in the conference.
The drastic improvement in scoring is a credit to Ball State’s first-year point guard Tayler Persons.
Previously under Whitford, Ball State had point guards who could score (Zavier Turner) and point guards who could distribute (Naiel Smith), but none have had the explosive combination to score and facilitate as effectively as Persons.
The sophomore transfer out of Northern Kentucky leads the team in scoring with 16 points per night and assists with 5 per game.
In the last two games, Persons has turned in his top two performances of the season.
Against Western Michigan he scored 24 in a six-point win.
Tuesday night against Toledo he matched a season-high with 26 points and added eight assists on just two turnovers.
“That’s as good a performance as we’ve seen in here, certainly, in a long time,” Whitford said of Persons performance Tuesday night.
As their point guard goes, so do the Cardinals.
Tough Schedule Approaching
One cannot diminish Ball State’s start in conference play.
Halfway home, Ball State is on pace for 12 conference wins, something they haven’t accomplished since the 2001-02 season.
That same year, the Cardinals defeated UCLA and Kansas in the Maui Invitational, then made a run to the Elite 8 of the NIT.
With the hot start this year Ball State still has plenty to prove. This next four-game stretch presents that opportunity.
The Cardinals host Buffalo Friday night, a team who returns seven players from its NCAA tournament team last year.
Next, it’s off to Akron. The Zips are 9-0. They missed the NCAA tournament by 1.8 seconds last year. They’re scary. They’re hungry. They rarely lose at home.
After Akron, Ball State hosts Ohio, a team many picked to win the league. Despite losing reigning conference player of the year Antonio Campbell, the Bobcats have the fourth best assist man in the country in Jaaron Simmons.
Finally, a brutal four game stretch culminates in DeKalb, Illinois against Northern Illinois, a place James Whitford has never won as a head coach. The Huskies lead the conference in defensive scoring and are the only team to hold the nation’s leading scorer, Marcus Keene, under 20 points.