BY MATT CRAIG | Ball State Sports Link
As the old saying goes: to be the best, you have to beat the best.
Ball State Men’s Basketball is certainly going to put that theory to the test this season, with an impressive lineup of non-conference opponents.
A season ago, the highest ranked team in the end of season RPI on Ball State’s schedule was Akron at 55th, coming as part of conference play. Only two other opponents (Valparaiso, Alabama) were even in the top 100 in the RPI rankings.
Not so this year, as the Cardinals have five opponents from last year’s top 100 scheduled just in non conference play: Oregon (7), Notre Dame (22), Dayton (36), Bucknell (66), Valparaiso (78).
Four of those schools played in last year’s NCAA Tournament, one shy of the total number of non-conference teams coming off of a tournament berth that Ball State has played in head coach James Whitford’s entire tenure (5). Throw in Oklahoma and Stony Brook, who played in the 2016 NCAA Tournament, and it’s the sternest test Ball State has faced during the Whitford era.
“It’s an aggressive schedule to say the least, but it’s exciting for our guys,” Whitford said. “For us, it’s really about being consumed with the process. Through good or bad, if your process is right, you’ll handle any schedule right.”
“Process” has been the core tenant of Whitford’s philosophy through his four years at the helm, and the attitude and preparation within the team is sure to change very little because of the strength of opponents.
Thankfully, Whitford may have his most talented team. Led by MAC Player of the Year candidate Tayler Persons, four players with 20+ starts a season ago return, bolstered by the addition of three talented freshmen and transfer Jontrell Walker.
Expect more of the same schematically from the Cardinal offense, featuring heavy use of the high pick-and-roll featuring Persons and 6-foot-10 Trey Moses surrounded by an abundance of lethal shooters. And on the other side of the ball it will continue to be the packline defense Whitford learned from longtime mentor Sean Miller.
Miller’s brother, Archie, coached at Dayton from 2011 until this past summer when he took the head job at Indiana, and was probably a big reason for the scheduling of Dayton for the November 10 opener. Before Dayton, Archie was an assistant at Ohio State where he coached current Ball State assistant coach Danny Peters.
However, the rest of the splashy non-conference games come as a result of Phil Knight’s 80th birthday.
ESPN is celebrating the longtime Nike executive by holding perhaps the largest regular season basketball tournament in college basketball history, which will culminate in a 16-team invitational tournament held in Portland, Oregon, during Thanksgiving week.
PK80, as it is known, has opened the door for smaller schools sponsored by Nike to schedule games against bigger Nike teams in the lead up to the event.
Bucknell, for example, has one of the hardest non-conference schedules in college basketball history. After opening the season with four straight road games at Monmouth, Arkansas, North Carolina and Maryland, the team returns home for a two-game homestand that includes Ball State, then the Bison will add road games at Saint Joseph’s and VCU, and a home game against a tough Vermont squad.
Oakland faces a similar murderer’s row that includes games at Syracuse, at Kansas and vs. Michigan State at the Detroit Piston’s Little Ceasar’s Arena.
“We’re more prepared to play this type of schedule than we would have been in the past; that’s part of it,” Whitford said. “But the bigger part of it is ESPN offering us these opportunities.”
For a mid-major program like Ball State, that’s perhaps the biggest benefit. Aside from the tough competition, games against top teams will raise the profile of the team and expose them to a national audience.
Whether or not their PK80 games are picked up on national television, two MAC games have already been selected for national broadcast.
A Jan. 27 rematch of the MAC Tournament semifinals against Akron will air on CBS Sports Network and a Feb. 23 game against Western Michigan will be shown on ESPN2. There are five more chances for MAC games to be picked up nationally, decided at a later date.
After the conclusion of PK80, Ball State faces an exciting slate of in-state opponents.
Within a two-week span, the Cardinals will take on Indiana State in Terre Haute, face Oakland City and IUPUI at home, travel to South Bend to play Notre Dame and return to Muncie to face Valparaiso.
The Dec. 5 matchup with Notre Dame marks the first time that Ball State has played the Irish in men’s basketball since Jan. 14, 1976 — over 40 years ago. Notre Dame won that contest 119-78, led by head coach Digger Phelps. College basketball fans will also get a chuckle out of hearing the Irish team included leading scorer Adrian Dantley, and anchored inside by freshman big man Bill Laimbeer.
For Ball State, this non-conference schedule will be a true litmus test for where the team ranks against the best in the country this season, and where the program stacks up in the state of Indiana, the midwest region and the rest of the nation.