BY SHAEMUS KREIDER | Ball State Sports Link
It may be because of the football team’s lack of a postseason, but all eyes are now focused inside Worthen Arena. It’s basketball time in Muncie.
Ball State Men’s Basketball opened up the 2017-18 season at the No. 2 spot in the MAC West Preseason poll, behind the the Western Michigan Broncos.
Ball State returns all but two players from last year’s 21-13 team. Franko House and Ryan Weber, both now with European teams, are replaced by star-studded recruits, Zach Gunn and Ishmael El-Amin and a transfer, Jontrell Walker. The trio showed their worth in the opening two weeks.
In the opener against Dayton, the Cardinals started flat, held scoreless for the opening six minutes. Then Walker hit a jumper. El-Amin followed with two layups, and the offense was finally rolling.
Following the six scoreless minutes, Ball State outscored Dayton 77-64, with the three newbies scoring 24 points, all off the bench.
This has been a trend this year. The Cardinals went with a nine-man rotation last season.
Now, Ball State has even more depth. In Saturday’s matchup against in-state rival Indiana State, Ball State played nine men. They all had between 13 and 36 minutes of action, while adding 29 points off the bench.
Earlier in the week, the Cardinals bench of four players logged between 16 to 22 minutes of action and chipped in 36 points.
Over a long five-month season, this depth should protect against a late-season slump.
Taylor Persons, who some think will be the MAC Player of the Year, doesn’t need to play 35 minutes a game for Ball State to succeed. If a starter is having a poor shooting contest, Coach Whitford can rotate in a substitute. During a long season this can be the difference between winning and losing close games, something Ball State has struggled at in the early going.
Ball State’s depth also allows it to cater lineups to their opponents. Expect to see more Trey Moses (as he becomes even healthier) and Tahjai Teague when Ball State plays conference teams like Western Michigan, who have 7-foot Seth Dugan and 6-foot-10 Drake LaMont in the post.
Against shorter teams, the Cardinals don’t need Teague and Moses’ height for defense, so expect more from Zach Gunn and Kyle Mallers in those matchups. El-Amin has proven to become a consistent offensive threat through six games, and you can’t forget about leading 3-point marksmen Francis Kiapway and Sean Sellers.
Sellers added 14 points in 26 minutes off the bench Saturday at Indiana State. He also grabbed eight rebounds, helping the Cardinals to a 36-26 edge on the boards in Terre Haute.
Ball State is a top-tier team in the MAC, returning a large portion from last year’s team that was a late basket away from the MAC title game last year.
Through six games this season, the Cardinals are five points away from standing at 4-2 overall. Ball State has played one of the most difficult schedules in the country so far, with Ken Pomeroy ranking the Cardinals’ schedule 25th.
Saturday’s game was the end of a stretch in which Ball State played five games in 11 days and traveled approximately 8,000 miles.
The Cardinals will return home to play twice this week at Worthen Arena, hosting Oakland City on Tuesday and IUPUI on Saturday. BSU will play eight of its next nine games in Muncie.
Their depth is just an added bonus, but in the highly competitive MAC, that might make the difference.
• True freshmen Zach Gunn and Ishmael El-Amin have made significant impacts off the bench this season.
• Gunn, coming off a career-high 13 points at Bucknell, is averaging 9.2 points and 3.8 rebounds in 17.2 minutes per game from his forward position.
• El-Amin is playing 17.4 minutes per game in the back court and leading the team in assist-to-turnover ratio at 2.2 to 1.
• Junior point guard Tayler Persons reached the 1,000-point mark for his career with his team-high 21 points in the Bucknell game. Persons, who played his freshman season at Northern Kentucky before transferring, needed just 69 college games to reach the mark.
• Persons leads the Cardinals in scoring at 16.4 points per game, while sophomore forward Kyle Mallers (12.6) and junior guard Jontrell Walker (10.2) are also averaging double figures.
• Ball State ranks 22nd nationally in team free throw percentage, knocking down 79.4 percent from the stripe. The Cardinals have shot 75 percent or better from the line in every game.