BY MICK TIDROW | Play-by-Play Voice of Ball State Men’s Basketball on Sports Link Radio on 91.3 WCRD
For Ball State Men’s Basketball, the season begins Friday at Dayton — one of the biggest and brightest stages in all of college basketball.
The sight of the “First Four” games in the NCAA Tournament, UD Arena holds more than 13,000 people on an average night of men’s basketball.
However, coming off a season where the Cardinals surpassed the 20-win mark for the second consecutive year (first time since 1991-92 the team has compiled back-to-back 20 win seasons), Ball State accepts the challenge with open arms.
Beginning their 97th season of basketball, the Cardinals have made one of the biggest turnarounds in all of college basketball in the past few seasons led by now fifth-year head coach James Whitford. In his first season, the Cardinals finished 5-25 but have not looked back since.
Dayton on the other hand, just lost Archie Miller to Indiana as the leader of the team. They hand the keys to Anthony Grant, who looks to serve the Flyers’ fanbase with another winning season and reach the NCAA Tournament for the fifth consecutive season.
These two teams have not clashed on the hardwood since 2010 when Dayton defeated Ball State 59-35 at UD Arena. Ball State’s lone win came in the second ever meeting, and the only in Muncie where the Cardinals won a defensive struggle, 25-15.
1. Post Play
Oh what a matchup we are in store for in the post. A pair of 6-foot-8 forwards in Ball State’s Tahjai Teague and Dayton’s Josh Cunningham are set to go head-to-head.
Teague, who averaged seven points, six rebounds, and a block per game as a freshman off the bench a year ago, comes in with a starting spot this year. Whenever he has the basketball in his hands, be ready for an explosive play toward the rim.
Cunningham has been waiting for this moment. After sitting out the 2015-16 season due to the NCAA transfer rules, the forward was primed to make an impact last season. However, Cunningham suffered a torn ligament in his ankle that kept him out of the lineup after playing just 11 total games.
The Chicago, Illinois native started his career at Bradley before his transfer. Cunningham notched a career-high 21 rebounds in a single game as a freshman. The ability is there for the redshirt junior, it is now about health.
2. No Lack of 3s From the Cardinals
The guard depth of this team is ridiculous. Standing potentially six deep between the point and shooting guard positions, the team returns all but one of its three-point threats from last year. With Ryan Weber graduated, the team welcomes Jontrell Walker to the rotation.
After sitting out last year due to transfer rules, Walker becomes an important piece to the outside game. Tayler Persons, Francis Kiapway and Sean Sellers all return as players who contributed to the mark of 319 threes made last season — the most in program history. Not to mention the addition of freshman Ishmael El-Amin, and this team can shoot.
Kiapway is ranked fourth in Ball State history with 184 career three-pointers, 40 shy of Jesse Berry’s school record.
If the past is any indication, the senior is well on pace to surpass the mark. The Hamilton, Ontario native notched 60 threes a season ago.
3. A Major Overhaul in Dayton
The biggest domino to fall for Dayton came at the end of the 2016-17 season, when the team lost its top three scorers to graduation in Charles Cooke, Kendall Pollard, and Scoochie Smith. All three players averaged over 10 points per game in their final season.
The top returning scorer for the Flyers is junior Xeyrius Williams. The forward was one of four players to appear in every game last year.
Perhaps the biggest change to the team came after Head Coach Archie Miller announced he was departing Dayton for Indiana to take over for previously fired Tom Crean. With Grant now in charge, it brings a new dynamic to a young roster.
Seven players on the Flyers roster hold status of true freshman, with Kostas Antetokounmpo (yes, the brother of NBA prodigy Giannis) standing as a redshirt freshman. That makes exactly half of the team’s roster freshman.
4. An Atmosphere To Behold
Friday may very well feel like we are sitting in on a “First Four” game in Dayton.
This is a team that nearly SOLD OUT for an exhibition game against Old Dominion Nov. 4 this year.
With over 13,000 fans in attendance night in and night out, it gives Ball State a chance to gear up for crowds similar to this in nature as the season progresses.
The trip to Dayton is just the first of three trips to teams who reached the NCAA Tournament a year ago (plus a little trip to Norman, Oklahoma to take on the Big 12 Sooners).
The early season tests Ball State stands up against has not been this prolific in years, and now the Cardinals get a chance to prove they belong as a team receiving votes in the AP Top 25 poll.