BY ALEX THOMAS | Ball State Sports Link
Don’t look now, but the Ball State men’s basketball team has been on fire in the last three weeks. The Cardinals have won five straight after defeating Final Four representative Loyola-Chicago 75-69 in the Windy City on Wednesday, and don’t look to be slowing down anytime soon.
During the winning streak Ball State is averaging nearly 90 points per game, while holding opponents to just over 72 points per game. The shooting numbers back up the output with the Cardinals hitting 53% from the field, including 40% from behind the arc.
There’s no mistaking that Tayler Persons is the leader of this team. His clutch moments radiated across the country last year and elevated Ball State’s profile like it hadn’t seen in decades. He’s continued to carry the scoring load this year (16.9 PPG), but is distributing the ball at a higher rate than ever before (5.4 APG).
This season, it’s about the supporting cast as much as it is Persons. The Cardinals have three players who score in double figures (Persons, K.J. Walton, Tahjai Teague). In addition, Kyle Mallers is averaging nine points per game with Trey Moses adding seven per contest, as he continues to work his way back to full form after offseason knee surgery.
Ball State has six players grabbing four or more rebounds per game, as the Cards have out rebounded their opponents by an average of five.
Missouri transfer K.J. Walton has been the difference over the last five games, scoring nearly 18 points per game on 74% shooting from the floor. Walton’s team high 22 points against Loyola-Chicago was his third 20+ point performance of the season.
Walton’s combination of size and speed usually finds him defending the opposing team’s best guard. The duo of Persons and Walton has developed a great deal since the start of the season, to the benefit of Head Coach James Whitford and his staff.
The buck doesn’t stop there. Tahjai Teague is having his best season in a Cardinal uniform, putting up a career high 13 points per game on nearly 64% shooting.
While the numbers are great, Teague’s biggest contribution isn’t with his offense but his stellar defense. After the season opening win against Indiana State, Head Coach James Whitford said of Teague’s performance, “It was one of the best defensive performances I’ve seen in a long time.”
After offseason knee surgery, Trey Moses struggled early on in the season averaging two points and three rebounds over the first three games. Since an 11 point outing against Alabama in the Charleston Classic, Moses has started to find his groove. His scoring average has improved each game since, he’s blocked over two shots per game, and grabbed a career high 17 rebounds against Tiffin. His enhanced play is one of the plethora of reasons for this five game win streak.
The Cardinals have gotten what they needed form their starting five so far, but the help they’ve gotten off the bench has been spectacular. Zach Gunn scored 13 points total in the first six games of the season, but has since found his shooting stroke. The sophomore forward has connected on 69% of his three point field goals while contributing 13 points per game off the bench in his last three contests.
Ishmael El-Amin has made a 10% jump in his field goal percentage and a 7% increase shooting from behind the arc. His playmaking abilities are impressive and with the way his shot has improved, El-Amin’s role should continue to grow.
Walk-on Josh Thompson has taken the backup point guard role and flourished. He’s third on the team in assists and boasts a 2.1 assist-to-turnover ratio. Thompson could make a case as Ball State’s best on ball defender, not named Tahjai Teague.
Ball State’s three losses came against #15 Virginia Tech, #24 Purdue, and a 5-3 Alabama team. The Cardinals are unbeaten in the first half of their four game road trip. By season’s end, wins over IUPUI and Loyola-Chicago could be some of the best wins of the season.
Ball State continues its road trip at Evansville on Sunday with tip-off at 3:00 PM ET. The Cardinals took down the Aces 82-72 at Worthen Arena on November 24th.