Andrew Walker

It took Division III Manchester College just one half of basketball to figure out how to best-defend Ball State University's offense.

Ball State had its most potent first half of the season against Manchester. The Cardinals shot a shade under 70 percent from the field and led the Spartans 42-29 at halftime in their Dec. 31 matchup.

So the Spartans decided to collapse in on the Cardinals' interior players in the second half, and oftentimes left Ball State's hesitant guards wide open beyond the 3-point line.

The plan almost worked to perfection for the undeniable underdog Spartans.

Manchester, like all Division III schools is prevented from having scholarship players, cut Ball State's 22-point second-half lead to just nine with 4:59 remaining in regulation. If it weren't for effective clock management and a little free-throw shooting by the Cardinals the rest of the way, Manchester had the defensive plan to leave Worthen Arena with a historic upset

Since the Cardinals entered halftime against Manchester, what was left of Ball State's slow-paced offense has all but disappeared.

In their next game, the Cardinals scored 35 total points at the University of Dayton, their lowest offensive output since the 1946-47 season. Then Ball State opened its Mid-American Conference schedule by shooting 19 percent in the second half against Northern Illinois University, turning a two-point halftime lead into a 14-point home loss. The win marked the first time in four seasons the Huskies claimed consecutive road victories.

Coach Billy Taylor said he's been concerned with the offensive execution the past five halves of action for the Cardinals. For a team insistent on feeding the post, layups of late haven't been falling for Ball State's big men. Young guards trying to create their own shots are off the mark.

And forget about the 3-point shot. The Cardinals are dead last in the nation — No. 347 out of 347 — in 3-pointers made per game.

So as impatience builds within the program and its fan base, Taylor and his staff are left with the daunting task of bringing an effective offense back to Worthen Arena in the grind-it-out world of MAC play.

Numbers don't lie
When Ball State exploded for 88 points in its season opener against Valparaiso University on Nov. 13, most Cardinals fans were refreshed to see a highly-productive offensive attack to match up with Taylor's already-established defensive principles.

It's simply been a mirage to this point of the season.

Ball State offense by the numbers

347th - Ball State's ranking in 3-pointers made per game, which ranks last among all Division I schools.

326th - BSU's ranking in scoring offense.

88.3 - BSU's adjusted efficiency, or points scored per 100 offensive possessions, ranking the Cardinals at No. 313 nationally.

15.4 - % of points BSU gets from 3-pointers, ranking 344th nationally.

56.8 - % of points BSU gets from 2-pointers, ranking 62nd nationally.

27.8 - % of points BSU gets from free throws, ranking third nationally.

241st - BSU's national ranking in free-throw shooting.

70.3: NCAA scoring average.

65.8: MAC scoring average.

In the 12 games since that 88-78 win over Valparaiso, Ball State (6-7, 0-1 MAC) has only reached the 70 point mark on one occasion, needing overtime to notch 81 points in its loss at Tennessee Tech. Perhaps even more disturbing to some, the Cardinals have reached the 60-point mark just three times in those 12 games and the offense is quickly on the decline.

When asked if he was concerned about the offense, Taylor said his mindset has changed since the Dayton game.

"If you had asked me that prior to two games ago, I would've said not so much," Taylor said. "I thought we were getting paint touches, we were finishing on the inside, we were efficient with our 3-point shooting — so, two games ago, I would've said, ‘Well, I think we're doing okay.'"

When comparing Ball State across the nation, not many schools struggle offensively as much as the Cardinals.

Ball State's 57.8 points-per-game average ranks No. 326 nationally and is 12.5 points behind the national scoring average of 70.3.

Some point to Taylor's preferred slow-moving offense when looking at Ball State's low-scoring average, but the Cardinals also aren't making the most of their offensive possessions.

Ball State scores just 88.3 points per 100 offensive possessions, according to Pomeroy ratings, which ranks No. 313 nationally. On average, the 347 Division I teams are scoring 100.2 points per 100 possessions this season.

Taylor said it all comes down to execution.

"I think that's what's hurting us offensively because we're having those struggles – it's plainly apparent," Taylor said. "Getting that sharp execution, looking at all our options within our sets and going and converting plays and having that confidence in yourself and your teammates that we're going to finish plays and get good shots and good opportunities."

Defense wins championships?
Taylor and his players say their identity lies on the defensive end of the ball until they're blue in the face.

Some of the numbers indicate that despite their struggles to score the ball, the Cardinals have remained true to their identity.

The Cardinals rank No. 38 nationally in scoring defense at 61.2 points per game, second-best in the conference behind reigning MAC Tournament champion University of Akron's 61 points-per-game allowed average.

Ball State held Dayton, a perennial NCAA Tournament team sitting right outside the national top-25 polls, more than 10 points under its 69.9 points-per-game average.

But take a closer look, and Ball State's offense has affected its defense.

Ball State opponents are averaging 100.5 points per 100 possessions this season, putting the Cardinals right in the middle of the pack as far as defensive efficiency.

Simply put, Ball State allows fewer points per game because its slow, shot clock-draining offensive strategy gives its opponents considerably less offensive possessions per game.

Taylor said overall, he's still satisfied with his defensive end of the court.

"We give up 62 points, 38 in the second half, obviously a lot of free throws at the end for Northern [Illinois], but I don't think our defense has been bad," Taylor said. "I thought against Dayton our defense was pretty effective, as well. It's our offense, just getting that back on track."

‘Return the punch'
Junior forward Malik Perry said he's definitely not given up on his team's deflated offense.

"Honestly, I've got a lot of faith in my teammates that even if you do get punched in the mouth, that hopefully we return the punch," he said.

Perry hasn't had many problems scoring the ball down low for Ball State. He leads the conference by more than five percentage points in field goal percentage (.597) and has been the leading scorer for the Cardinals three times this season.

The main problem offensively has been Ball State's young nucleus of guards.

The Cardinals have two sophomores (Randy Davis and Pierre Sneed) and three freshmen (Jauwan Scaife, Myron Green and John Green) guards who were more-than-capable — some stellar — 3-point shooters in their high school careers.

But in their efforts to feed the ball to the team's strength in the post, the guards have forgotten about 3-point land, ranking dead last in the nation in 3-pointers made per game at 2.9.

Scaife, Ball State's best 3-point threat, has followed the trend of his team's offense the past two games. After connecting on 15-of-34 (44.1 percent) of his 3s prior to the Dayton game, Scaife has since gone 0-for-7.

"It'll be important for everybody around [Scaife], coaches and players included, to continue to encourage him," Taylor said following Scaife's 1-for-12 shooting performance vs. Northern Illinois. "He got some good open looks early, and they didn't fall for him, and then I thought he started to press a little bit and he started to try to make some drives that weren't necessarily there."

The Cardinals have showed the ability to shoot the deep ball with consistency, converting 33.6 percent of 3-pointers this season. Ball State hit 4-of-6 3s in its road win at Indiana State University and went 5-for-5 from deep against Maryland Eastern Shore.

To Taylor, shooting the 3 is about timing within the offense.

"I think the main thing to combat is just going back to your execution and trying to get easy shots within the offense," Taylor said. "It's really important for some of our young players, our young guards, to understand that if you're going to miss a shot, you might miss a couple shots in a row, but still stay within the offense, still execute the way that we want, and we'll get the next shot."

Getting back to work
In the grand scheme of things, Ball State has plenty of time left in the regular season to right the ship on offense.

For now, all the team can do is try to improve with each day.

After a dejecting home loss to MAC West Division rival Northern Illinois, Ball State was back in the gym getting "back to work."

"It was very intense, and it was very focused," Taylor said. "The day after a game, after a tough loss at home, I anticipated that it would be — I would be even more disappointed if we didn't show up and practice hard. I think everybody understands what's at stake."