BY SHAEMUS KREIDER | Ball State Sports Link
Back in March, Ball State traveled to Cleveland for its quarterfinal in the MAC Tournament. They faced Kent State, who were coming off an up-and-down regular season that included wins over Buffalo and Oregon State, but losses to Northern Illinois and Southeastern Louisiana. The Flashes’ record entering the tournament was .500.
Ball State had lost three in a row. After a frustration-filled loss on ESPN2 to Western Michigan, the offense sputtered to a halt, losing to the two teams at the bottom of the MAC West. BSU shot under 30 percent from three in the last two games, scoring 58 points per game.
At the home of Lebron James and the Cavs, Kent State took the early lead, but Ball State fought back behind the sharp-shooting of freshman Zach Gunn, who finished with a career high five threes. BSU tied the game at the half.
As the second half evaporated, so did the Cardinals chances. Kent State expanded its lead to 10 with five minutes left. The interior was a problem for the Cardinals. The Flashes seven-footer, Adonis De La Rosa, reached the free throw line a career-high 16 times.
Despite holding Kent State to six points in a seven-minute stretch, the early deficit is too much to overcome. The offense goes cold for the final minutes, and a late, brief lead was squandered. The Cardinals ended their year with a 76-73 loss. Ball State elected to forego the CBI or CIT, and did not play a postseason game for the first time since 2014-15.
Despite the ugly end to last season, the Cardinals won over 19 games for the third consecutive season, after a period of four years without a winning record. This year’s Cardinals bring an excitement that is unlike anything in recent memory.
“I’m not afraid to say it,” Associate Head Coach Jason Grunkemeyer said. “I hope this team can play in the NCAA Tournament.”
The Cardinals were a close second in this year’s MAC West Preseason Poll with 11 first-place votes. All but two players return from last year’s roster, including preseason All-MAC point guard Tayler Persons, and 2018 All-MAC Third Team center Trey Moses. This is a star-studded group.
It’s fairly safe to assume that the slimmed-down Tayler Persons will be the Cardinals MVP for the third season. After a year with five last second shots made, Persons has a chance to further write his name in Ball State legend status.
Trey Moses will continue to be a top-tier big man in the MAC. He has been a type of “point guard” of the interior for the Cardinals. He is unique because he is unafraid to make the extra pass to advantage the team’s position.
Moses had two assists per game last year, while also averaging a near double-double. He had late offseason knee surgery, but is expected back to the starting lineup in the next week.
Two more keys to the increased expectations: K.J. Walton and Brachen Hazen. The SEC transfers, from Missouri and Arkansas respectively, have high expectations in their return to the Hoosier State.
Walton was a frequent starter at Missouri, and brings experience from playing as an underclassman against the SEC’s elite. He brings one of the top verticals in the NCAA to the Cardinals, plus premier speed on the court.
“K.J. brings lightning in a bottle,” Whitford said. “He’s a guy that runs downhill and can get to the rim. He’s like Barry Sanders on the basketball court.”
Hazen is a do-it-all 6-foot-8 forward. He was a benchwarmer for the 2017 Razorbacks, but for the Cardinals, he will provide a small forward skill set with a power forward’s height, similar to Kyle Mallers.
“Brachen brings a guy who is a great rebounder, a really good athlete inside,” Whitford said. “He’s a smart player, and he’s getting better. I like his approach. He gets better every day.”
If Trey Moses is unable to play effectively in his recovery from offseason knee surgery, Hazen’s role will be larger in the opener against Indiana State.
Hazen’s height is a trend for the Cardinals. Josh Thompson and Ish El-Amin are the only two Cardinals under 6-foot-3.
“Length and size impact the game defensively,” Whitford said.
Walton and Hazen are going to replace most of the minutes lost from last season, but newcomers also include two new guards, graduate transfer Austin Nehls and freshman Jarron Coleman.
All these players are going to create quite a deep team for Whitford. They can conceivably go with an 11-man rotation.
“One thing about depth is that it provides competition for guys in the offseason, to focus them and make them better,” Whitford said. “The second thing is, in any season, you never know how healthy you’re gonna be.”
The schedule for Ball State is as advantageous as the expectations for the year. After the home opener versus Indiana State, the Cardinals travel to West Lafayette for a primetime matchup with nationally ranked Purdue.
Ball State once again plays an Indiana-heavy road schedule, with four different road trips to teams in Indiana (Purdue, Valparaiso, Evansville, IUPUI).
In other challenging games on the non-conference slate, Ball State travels to Chicago to play last year’s NCAA Tournament cinderella, Loyola University.
In addition the team will travel to Charleston for the Charleston Classic to play nationally ranked Virginia Tech. The second round is either against one of the top mid-majors, Northeastern, or Alabama, who made the NCAA Tournament last year, but lost Collin Sexton to the NBA.
“Playing good competition makes you better,” Whitford said.
Sports Link will have the TV coverage for Ball State’s home opener, Tuesday at 7pm. Tune in on ESPN+.
The Cardinals’ high expectations will have all eyes on Worthen Arena this year. If you can’t make it to the games in person, follow us on Twitter @bsusportslink.