Conor Hockett

On Dec. 10, not a week shy of Christmas break for students, Ball State treated fans to a 58-55 win over Butler; the team's first since 2003.

Expectations were high for the Cardinals entering the three-week hiatus from classes. But the momentum from the team's biggest win in over five years quickly evaporated after back-to-back losses to IUPUI and Morehead State.

Coach Billy Taylor voiced his frustration about Ball State's lack of ball security and rebounding margin after both games.

"Something we talk about as being part of our identity — wanting to establish the paint and dominate the pain ­— we didn't do that effectively tonight," Taylor said following the loss to IUPUI Dec. 19. "They outscored us in points in the paint, killed us in second chance points. That's really where it starts for us. We couldn't control our defensive glass. When you can't do that it's tough to win."

In a span of three games, Butler through Morehead State on Dec. 23, Ball State was outrebounded 108-97. A -11 margin on the boards cost Ball State two games in that stretch.

The Cardinals addressed those problems and won its next two games against lowly Chicago State and Florida A&M. Uncertainty still remained, however, because those teams have combined for 3 wins this season.

One thing that's certain is the return of sophomore guard Tyrae Robinson has given the team a lift on both sides of the ball.

Robinson made his debut against Morehead State after being declared academically ineligible for the previous nine games. In his first game back, the 6-foot-2-inch playmaker led Ball State in scoring with 14 points.

His dribble-drive ability gives the Cardinals' offense another dimension both in the half court and in transition.

"Every time Tyrae is in the lineup, we push the ball and get stops too," sophomore forward Matt Kamieniecki said after the Chicago State game Dec. 31. "You always hear him on the outlets and he pushes the ball and gets easy baskets."

Since Robinson's return, Ball State has posted arguably two of the best three offensive performances of the season. The team's 86 points against Chicago State was a season-high and his pace with the ball has helped account for Ball State's 56 fast break points.

The performance against Chicago State was trumped only by Ball State's last game of the break on Friday. It was the conference opener against the preseason favorite in the Mid-American Conference West Division, Western Michigan.

Ball State jumped out to an early lead and never trailed in the ball game. Relative to the opponent, the Cardinals efficiency reached a new high.

"I thought it [our offense] was really good," Taylor said after the game. "I thought we did a fantastic job moving the ball. The ball didn't die. Whenever the ball moves it is really fun and it's enjoyable to play."

Following the 78-69 against Western Michigan, Ball State now enjoys a one-game advantage over the early season favorites and is the only team in the West Division with a winning record.

There are 16 games left in Ball State's season, but there is no denying that was a good start for the Cardinals.

"Any time you have the opportunity to play a road game in this league and you don't get it, it can hurt you down the road," Western Michigan coach Steve Hawkins said. "This is a place where Ball State is obviously very good. If you can pick up the win here, it's like picking up more than one game because a lot of folks will lose here."