Rhett Umphress

I just kept running into the men's basketball team at its worst.

Butler put up 88 points — 18 more than the Cardinals have allowed in regulation in any other game this season — while making the Ball State offense look like a joke.

Staying up well past my bedtime to catch Ball State's games in Alaska didn't make me any happier. I thought we would break through to pick up an upset victory over St. John's and media darling Steve Lavin. However, the Cardinals couldn't hang on to a six-point lead with two minutes left and eventually lost in overtime.

And don't even get me started on the Alaska Anchorage loss. I don't think I'll ever be able to wear Ball State apparel around Sarah Palin now.

I was losing hope in this team, but then I was shocked to find out the Cardinals are the top-ranked MAC team in both the Sagarin and Pomeroy ratings. They are second in scoring margin, second in shooting percentage and first in assist-to-turnover ratio in the conference.

Ever since that disheartening end to November, the Cardinals have gone on a nice streak, winning six of seven. The Cardinals aren't building a résumé that will blow people away, but they look as if they are molding into a squad that can excel in the Mid-American Conference.

Ball State (9-4, 1-0 MAC) is finally getting solid production from its leaders.

Junior Jarrod Jones has developed into the low-post presence Ball State needs, averaging a double-double since the loss to the Seawolves with 19.9 points per game and 10 rebounds. Jones controlled Northern Illinois during the first MAC game of the season. He was dominant in the paint with great touch on a 10 to 15-foot jump. He impressed with a highlight-reel worthy dunk on a breakaway.

Jauwan Scaife appeared to snap a shooting slump against the Huskies. The sophomore knocked down 6 of 12 on Saturday after going 1 for 13 in a pair of home games before that. Let's hope returning to Worthen Arena doesn't bring back the shooting woes.

Throw in the defense of Pierre Sneed, the point guard play of Randy Davis and a bench that is putting in solid minutes, and you have the makings of a lineup that can play with anyone in the conference.

Most of all, though, Ball State can take advantage of the fact that the MAC West continues to be dreadful. Western Michigan (8-6, 1-0 MAC), which Ball State faces tonight, is the only other team with a winning record in the division. The rest of the division is a set of three and four-win teams.

Tonight represents an early opportunity to take some control of the division.

Coach Billy Taylor and his team are starting to peak at the right time. The challenge now is to live up to the pressure and expectations.

Taylor's teams at Ball State certainly haven't done so up to this point.

The past two seasons, the Cardinals stumbled at the end of the regular season, losing three straight. One year, it worked out and they managed to win the division. The other it didn't.

Granted, we all know a division title isn't worth a whole lot, but a first-round bye in the MAC Tournament is. The tournament is a wild shootout, where any team can win — just look at Ohio's run as the No. 9 seed last season — but getting the free trip to Cleveland is valuable.

That is why tonight's game is so important. Winning the MAC Tournament is the only way for a team like Ball State to make the NCAA Tournament. The winner tonight will have the first leg up in the race to be automatically one step closer to that goal.

So which Cardinals will show up? The lackluster Ball State we saw against Butler? The apathetic team that was upset by the Seawolves? Or can Ball State look like the team I saw play Northern Illinois? It wasn't the most dominant win, but the Cardinals were definitely the better team.

We've had two years of "almosts." Let's see if the Cardinals can continue their recent success and turn 2011 into a year of accomplishment.