BY NATHAN GANGER | Ball State Sports Link
The Ball State men’s basketball team came up just short on the road at Northern Kentucky tipping off their 2020 season with a narrow 74-73 loss.
Now the Cardinals hit the road once again for a showdown in Ann Arbor versus the 2-0 Michigan Wolverines. Wednesday’s game tips at 7 p.m. on the Big Ten Network.
“They provide challenges,” Whitford said. “We can’t let them get deep into the paint and kick it out. They play with great pace and we’ve got to do a great job. They have special players.”
In Michigan’s last game vs. Oakland, a 81-71 win in overtime, the Wolverines towered over the Golden Grizzlies and took advantage of their height.
Ball State will really need to focus in on 7-foot-1 freshman Hunter Dickinson and 6-foot-7 senior Isaiah Livers.
Dickinson can do it all for Michigan. He’s very patient in the post, an excellent passer out of double teams and he’s got a smooth jump shot to along with all of that.
Dickinson was ranked 36th in ESPN’s top 100 prospects and was the Gatorade Player of the Year in Maryland.
The trio of Brachen Hazen, Ben Hendriks, and Blake Huggins will have to be physical and not let Michigan attack the offensive glass like they did versus Oakland.
Those three players for Ball State combined for just 11 rebounds at Northern Kentucky. It will take a team effort to slow down Michigan’s offensive rebounding.
Livers dropped in 22 points to go along with three rebounds, three assists, and four blocks vs. Oakland. It was his fifth career 20+ scoring game.
The senior is an extremely versatile player because he has the physicality of a forward, but also the athleticism of a guard which allows him to play multiple positions.
He’s known for his defense and rebounding but also has improved as a shooter. Last year, Livers posted 14 double-figure games and three games where he had 20 points or more.
While Michigan does have three transfers and four freshmen in its roster, Ball State needs to get its offense going in Ann Arbor.
Luke Bumbalough had zero points and was 0-for-2 from 3-point land in the opener. The Cardinals as a whole shot just 26.1% (6-of-23) from downtown.
Bumbalough led all MAC freshmen in minutes played during conference play in 2020, while his 56 3-pointers for the year led all rookies in the league and ranked third on BSU’s all-time freshman 3FG list.
For a team that had a lot of success with the three-ball last year, that needs to improve for Ball State to win this game at Michigan.
The return of Zach Gunn should help the Cardinals’ shooting because he is such a pure catch and shoot player.
With Kyle Mallers graduating, look for Gunn to potentially carve out a larger role in James Whitford’s rotation because of his shooting ability.
KJ Walton will need to have a similar performance to the career-high 28-point outing he had in the opener at NKU. He also grabbed 11 rebounds.
Ball State is without talented redshirt sophomore guard Jarron Coleman due to foot surgery in October. Whitford says he expects Coleman back at some point this season, but losing the 2019 MAC Freshman of the Year hurts this team significantly.
The Cardinals also will be without forward Reggie Jones, a 6-foot-7 transfer from Tulsa. Jones, who also underwent surgery, is out with a lower body injury.
Those are two big blows to this team, but thankfully Ball State has plenty of depth and guys who have logged considerable minutes. The current roster has scored 3,905 cumulative points. Ball State returns 60.1 percent of its scoring from last year and 61.2 percent of its minutes played.
Michigan is a very talented team and Ball State will have its hands full Wednesday night. The Cardinals will need to lean on their defense, which allowed just 62.5 points per game last year, to slow the Wolverines down.
Michigan is 9-1 all-time against Ball State. The Wolverines and Cardinals are meeting for the first in 12 years, when Michigan dropped a 75-64 decision to Ball State at the Crisler Center on Nov. 16, 1998.