BY MATT CRAIG | Ball State Sports Link | The Athletic
Ball State and Dayton will meet Friday night on the court to open their 2017-2018 campaigns.
But the game also signals a meeting of the two programs from opposite directions. Dayton has been to four straight NCAA Tournaments, including an Elite Eight appearance in 2014, but saw its head coach and four core players depart over the summer.
In 2014, Ball State went 5-25 and has been clawing its way toward national relevance ever since. The Cardinals enter this season with their deepest and most experienced team under fifth-year head coach James Whitford.
At Dayton, new coach Anthony Grant inherits a fanbase who isn’t interested in a rebuilding year. Aided by one of the best home court environments in all of college basketball and increased financial backing, the Flyer Faithful believe they have shielded themselves against a drop off.
But regression is inevitable, not just because five of their 10 scholarship players have never played college basketball before but also from new coaching philosophies.
For example, my colleague at The Athletic, Brian Hamilton, went into detail about how previous coach Archie Miller preferred to protect the baseline defensively, where as Grant hopes to protect the middle, funneling drivers to the baseline. Those changes will take time.
On the other side, there can’t be many teams more confident about their identity than Ball State, as evidenced in a 91-67 exhibition victory over Saint Francis. It’s “run and gun” for the Cardinals, who recorded nine of their 18 made field goals in the first half of that game from three-point range. They won’t struggle to score very often this season, needing to perform defensively and on the glass in order to win games.
Friday night’s contest will be an interesting contrast of styles in that regard. Dayton, under Archie Miller anyway, was a slower, more defensive-minded team. And their roster this season has a lot of talent in the frontcourt, led by legitimate all-conference candidates Xeryius Williams and Josh Cunningham, not to mention Kostas Antetokounmpo (brother of NBA All-Star Giannis).
Ball State is guard-centric, led by point guard Tayler Persons and a trio of senior sharpshooters in Sean Sellers, Francis Kiapway and Jeremie Tyler.
To win, the Cardinals will need a big game from Tahjai Teague. With starting center Trey Moses questionable to play, Teague is the only true big man on the roster.
The 6-foot-8 redshirt sophomore grabbed 12 rebounds in the exhibition, though admittedly it was against far smaller competition. Keep an eye on the rebounding margin Friday. If the Cardinals can keep it close there, they’ll likely have an advantage on the scoreboard.
A win on Friday would be huge for the Ball State program — and for the confidence of a team which faces an extremely difficult non-conference schedule that includes Oregon, Oklahoma and Bucknell. I spoke with Whitford about this schedule a few weeks ago:
A win would also help justify some of the preseason buzz the team has been getting.
Kyle Boone of CBS Sports had Ball State as one of the “10 potential Cinderella teams” in his preseason preview, and the Cardinals were listed as a “buy” team in Chris Schutte’s preseason mid-major stock watch.
The team even got a few votes in the preseason AP Top 25 poll, though that turned out to be a mistake by my boss Seth Davis (for the record I didn’t hack his ballot, though I would have if I knew how).
But as Whitford always says, it’s about the process (or #TheProcess, if I may).
Ball State can neither qualify nor disqualify themselves from the 2018 NCAA Tournament based on the result of the first game of the season. The Mid-American Conference is still a one-bid league, so the Cardinals’ tournament hopes will depend on just a few games in March. Everything leading up until then is just preparation.
The preparation begins Friday night in Dayton, Ohio. You can watch the game if you have access to Spectrum Sports’ regional southwest Ohio network. If not, you can listen to the game on SL Radio on WCRD 91.3 FM with Mick Tidrow, Alex Thomas and Jack Kizer on the call.