By Matt Craig | @MrMattCraig
Editor in Chief of Chirp City
Member of Ball State Sports Link
Ball State Sports Link started its all-access basketball show two years ago, and needed a name that was both catchy and descriptive for the state of the Ball State Men’s Basketball program.
We picked “Out of the Shadows,” to describe the ascent of the program from its obscurity in recent years.
However, I don’t think anyone — including Coach James Whitford himself — would be able to tell you the program has achieved what he hoped it would in his time here in Muncie.
With only 12 wins in the past two seasons, the Ball State program has definitely not yet come “out of the shadows” just yet. But, that’s all about to change.
Let me tell you a story that can really only be possible through the power of sports.
It all started in a little town called Lewisberry, Pennsylvannia, population 356. There were 13 little boys from Lewisberry and surrounding tiny towns and villages who formed the “Red Land” little league baseball team.
They adopted the phrase, “Why Not Us?” as they went 19-0 in their little league season.
They asked “Why Not Us?” as they took home the district championship. They thought, “Why Not Us?” when they became state champions. They chanted “Why Not Us?” as they took on the perennial powerhouse from Pearland Texas in the U.S. Championship in Williamsport, VA.
And in front of a record-breaking crowd of 46,000 people, many donning red “Why Not Us?” t-shirts, the kids from Red Land became National Champions.
While the team later lost in the World Championship game to Japan, they returned home to a parade fitting of their hero status.
So, Cardinal fans, I ask you: WHY NOT US?!?
Everyone who is pessimistic predicts single-digit wins again, and even the optimists are over here telling me we should be happy with .500. But forget that, why can’t we win the Mid-American Conference?
I’m not going to sit here and make excuses for this Ball State team the last two years, but they have absolutely not caught any breaks during Coach Whitford’s tenure.
Between injuries, suspensions and transfers, the roster has been depleted each season.
And at the mid-major level, where teams don’t have the luxury of rostering one-or-more “gamebreakers” who can cover up any holes by dropping 40 points as easily as I forget my Spanish homework. Winning ballgames is much more about the cohesion of the group.
Unless … does anyone have Bonzi Wells’ phone number? I think we can find another year of eligibility for him somehow.
But in that way, mid-major basketball truly is the most genuine “college basketball” anywhere in America. Teams rely on senior leadership, teamwork and basketball IQ to succeed instead of other-worldly athleticism and raw talent you’d see at a “NBA purgatory” school like Kentucky.
This year’s Ball State squad finally has all of those components. The “All In” culture has finally been fully established in the locker room, and the senior leadership is stronger than ever before in the Whitford era. Not to mention the deepest and most talented lineup in years.
We can’t kid ourselves, the MAC was as strong as it’s ever been last year. And yet, most of the studs are gone and teams suddenly look really beatable.
Buffalo: The defending conference champions lost its three top leading scorers from last year, including the MAC Player of the Year Justin Moss (suspension) and Shannon Evans (transfer to Arizona St). Bobby Hurley’s bunch are always going to be tough, but they lost a lot of firepower.
Kent State: Still extremely talented in the front court, but the loss of both backcourt starters (Derek Jackson at PG and Deveraux Manly at SG) leaves them vulnerable to a team that has a lot of talented and athletic guards (hmmmm…sounds familiar? #ChirpChirp)
Bowling Green: The team’s star player last year, Richaun Holmes, was drafted in this summer’s NBA draft and now plays for the Philadephia 76ers (I’m sorry about that Richaun, really). With him goes a huge chunk of scoring and rebounding, and any time a MAC team loses an NBA-caliber player they’re going to have to find a new identity.
Central Michigan: Wait you mean the same team that Ball State beat last year in Worthen Arena? I don’t think there’s any question they’re tough, but their style sets up perfectly for the Cardinals. I don’t think anyone would argue Ball State has improved more from last year’s game.
The MAC has really moved into being one of the best mid-major conferences in the country, but if it has told us anything over the last few years, it’s that there’s a lot of parity and any team can win on any given night.
A lot of the time, it just comes down to who wants it more.
The Culture of Winning
Every four years, the NCAA allows college programs to take a “foreign trip,” which in addition to providing multiple games for the team to play together, also allows for 10 days of practices. Ball State was able to take its trip this summer to the Bahamas.
It’s not really analysis to say the time spent on and off the court together will benefit the team greatly.
Sporting News points out that out of a sampling of 27 teams that took foreign trips from 2006-2010, the teams improved by an average of two games in their record the following season.
But anyone who played AAU or “travel” basketball can relate to the unique bond that forms when you travel with your team. It doesn’t matter how much the team practices or plays with each other, there’s just a different kind of closeness that forms when you spend a lot of time with the guys off of the court, in hotel rooms, on buses and at water parks for example.
This team — and every college team — reaches that level of cohesion at some point in the season considering the length and travel in every college basketball schedule.
Now, the Cardinals have fast forwarded that time frame by taking a trip few other teams in the MAC have a chance to take.
This of course could lead to a hot start at the beginning of the season, which could cause the team’s confidence to skyrocket, and before long, the “Why Not Us?” mentality could settle in.
And oh yeah, the team went 2-0 in its games over there, with a +40 margin of victory. They played fast. They played hard. Something may have clicked.
All of this new bonding doesn’t even factor in this team’s combined experience already playing together. The hand was forced by the depleted lineups I mentioned earlier, but players like Franko House, Sean Sellers and Francis Kiapway played significant roles on the team from their first day, and have tons of minutes and experience to show for it.
For the first time, Whitford has a group of players who have grown up within his system and benefited from it.
The culture in the locker room and in practice is obvious. It’s a winning culture. It’s founded on improving every day, both physically and mentally.
What sort of things is Coach Whitford commenting on at practice? It’s not missed shots or turnovers. It’s effort, hustle and decision-making. There’s a noticeable camaraderie amongst the players that’s much more powerful than in past years. You see it in the way they compete with — and against each other — every day at practice.
“We’re a higher character team,” Whitford says. “It’s a much easier group to coach than we’ve ever had. I do feel like we’ve made what I call a cultural shift. What that means to me is embracing the responsibility of performing every day.”
This team is ready to make the jump.
If there’s one thing Coach Whitford has shown his mastery in during his time in Muncie, it’s certainly player development.
Look at any player who has been in the system for more than a year, and you will see both a transformed body and a transformed game. The quintessential example is without a doubt Franko House, who’s undergone a complete change of everything from body type, to skill-set, to most importantly hair and beard combination (much improved if you ask me).
He came to Ball State at 269 pounds., and by the time his sophomore season started, he was 237 pounds. and under 8% body fat.
At 6-foot-6, he now truly has a body that you would find at high-major D1 programs, and showed glimpses of dominance in the MAC a year ago en route to averaging 10.3 points and 5.5 rebounds. His game has developed to the point that feeding him in the post usually results in a mismatch, and is used to initiate the Cardinals’ offense often.
But House is not the only Cardinal to show improvement.
The first thing I noticed while watching the first practice of the year was a surprising amount of muscle that was added to all of the players, especially the sophomores Jeremie Tyler and Sean Sellers, who were pushed around at times last season.
Sellers and Tyler led the team in scoring last season, and with their development in the offseason, they could turn some heads on the court this winter.
Ryan Weber used his sit-out year last year to really bulk up in the weight room, and should play a significant role with this year’s team.
Player development is the cornerstone of a successful mid-major program, since once again these schools aren’t landing future NBA lottery picks every year.
Whitford’s player development program has been as good as anyone’s, and the results are going to pay off this year in a big way.
The New Additions
While Coach Whitford’s best trait may be his player development, he cannot be discounted for his recruiting.
Not just in the Indiana All-Stars he’s lured to campus, but for the transfers who have found their way to Ball State. This year’s team has four, with one additional transfer waiting in the wings as he does his sit-out year.
Jeremiah Davis, a transfer from Cincinnati, averaged 7.1 points and 2.9 assists last season, but battled injuries throughout. Now a senior, he might be the strongest leader on the team.
As the starting point guard, everyone is going to be looking to him to run the show. If he can get back to the dominance he showed at Muncie Central High School, or even the glimpses we saw of him at Cincy, this team can be special.
Nate Wells gives the Cardinals something they haven’t had since the departure of Majok Majok — a strong inside presence. There just aren’t a lot of 7-footers in the MAC, and none have the experience of this fifth-year grad from Bradley.
His rim protection ability alone raises the Cardinal’s ceiling a few notches, and if he’s able to dominate the rebounding the way he should, the Cardinals become a much better team.
Ryan Weber put in a ton of work last year while he was sitting out, and Coach Whitford has done nothing but gush about his abilities.
“When he brings it, he’s an All-MAC caliber player,” Whitford says.
He has elite shooting potential, and plays really tough inside which should add to the Cardinals’ rebounding and defensive potential.
Naiel Smith is a guy that really surprised me in the practices I’ve seen, because he has one of those ridiculous motors and really brings it on the defensive end. It’s going to be hard to keep him off the floor just because of how tough he plays and the effort he gives you.
And freshmen Tahjai Teague and Trey Moses bring even more size to team. Because of the depth this team already has, there’s no pressure on them to have to come in and perform the way the last few freshman classes have had to, and yet these guys both have all-star potential.
Ok, so let’s look at how this team can do this year.
The schedule is perfectly set up for what this team is trying to do. The challenges of Top 25 teams last year (Utah, San Diego St) were great for building experience, but this year is all about winning ball games, and it’s all about bringing momentum into the conference schedule.
The squad has a chance to establish its place amongst the Indiana programs with matchups against Valparaiso, IUPUI, and Indiana State, plus have another tough non-conference matchup in Pepperdine.
But this year, other than ISU, all of those games will be played at Worthen Arena, giving the team a chance to bring some excitement and energy to their home court.
If they can win a few of those and take a really good record into the conference schedule, the Muncie community could really rally behind this team in the same was the Red Land community did for their Little League World Series run. Then we get to the conference match-ups and all bets are off.
All I know is this: Ball State has as good of a chance as any. They are flexible, and can start really big lineups (Weber, Teague, Wells), as well as small-ball lineups (Sellers, Weber, House).
All signs point to this year’s Cardinals being not just better than they have been, but actually really, really good.
So again I ask you, WHY NOT US??
You can follow along with this year’s Ball State basketball team by watching Ball State Sports Link’s “Out of the Shadows,” an all-access show. The season three premiere airs Thursday, one day before Ball State opens their season against Bradley. For what to expect on Episode 1, check out this promo!