Ball State head coach James Whitford watches the players during the game against Miami on Jan. 10, 2017 in Worthen Arena. The Cardinals won 85-74. Terence K. Lightning Jr. // DN File
Is Ball State basketball close to returning to its former glory?
Whitford says the Cardinals are 'knocking on the door' of previous eras success
With the additions of summer transfers K.J. Walton from Missouri and Brachen Hazen from Arkansas, Ball State’s roster has eight former Indiana All-Stars.
That’s the most one team has had since Purdue had eight during the 1998-99 season. And it means eight out of the nine Hoosiers on the Cardinals roster were at one point, considered one of the best high school basketball players in Indiana.
Tayler Persons, Sean Sellers, Jeremie Tyler, Tahjai Teague, Kyle Mallers and Zach Gunn round up the list of All-Stars on the Cardinals roster.
While Walton and Hazen will sit out one year due to transfer rules, Ball State head coach James Whitford said that the increased competition put the Cardinals in position to return to the dominance it showed in the late '80s, early '90s.
“There was an era when Ball State basketball commanded respect in the state and in the Mid-Major scene,” Whitford said. “I wouldn’t put us there yet, but I do think we’re knocking on that door. In the next couple of years, hopefully when people think of really good Mid-Major programs, we’re one of the programs they think of.”
From 1986-1995, when Ball State men’s basketball won five Mid-American Conference tournaments, leading them to five NCAA Tournament appearances, including its only Sweet Sixteen appearance in 1990.
Chandler Thompson, Muncie Central boy’s basketball coach and a sophomore on the 1990 men's basketball roster, also thinks that the Cardinals have the right pieces to make a bigger impact within the NCAA.
“I think so, they [Ball State] got a couple of new guys coming in and they have some good veterans to help out the younger guys,” Thompson said. “That’s the way it was for us, especially me, when I played. … That’s what they have right now, they have team.”
Thompson started 29 out of the Cardinals 33 games in 1990 and helped Ball State men's basketball make its longest run in the NCAA Tournament.
The former Indiana All-Star was surrounded by other All-Stars like Rodney Haynes, Billy Butts and Greg Miller, all seniors, who helped mold him in his first season. Thompson knows just what Hoosier talent can do for a team, drawing similarities from this years roster to his playing days.
“I think this team, they have a lot of Indiana talent that’s on the team,” Thompson said. “During my time, we had a few players that came from Indiana. We had really good basketball and a lot of fans still like to see local or home-grown talent being played.”
Half of Ball State's roster normally consists of Hoosiers, a pattern that has continued throughout the years.
But recruiting the best in-state players isn’t easy.
“We’re in such a basketball rich area, every kid here grows up playing basketball from an early age,” head coach James Whitford said. “If you’re one of the best players from Indiana, you’re a really good player. We’re not the only ones who know that.”
In-state programs like Butler, Indiana and Purdue all have former All-Stars on their rosters, but Power Five conference programs from the Atlantic Coastal Conference, Big Ten, Pac-12 and Southeastern Conference have also landed recruits in the past two classes.
The number of Indiana All-Stars on Ball State’s roster is no small accomplishment, and Whitford said that continuing to recruit in-state athletes is “critical for long-term success.”
While in-state recruitment is the foremost focus for Ball State coaches, Whitford said balance between Indiana athletes and players from other parts of the country are vital to what they're trying to accomplish.
"I think what you see now is a roster that just has a lot more depth to it, there's a lot more competition," Whitford said. "I think that's certainly a good thing and hopefully we can take advantage of that, capitalize and take bigger steps forward in the next couple of years."
While it’s still too early to know how Ball State is going to perform in its upcoming season, there are a couple of things to keep in mind as the Cardinals finish summer workouts and enter the fall semester:
- Ball State is coming off of back-to-back 20-plus win seasons, including one of the best turnarounds from 2014-15 into 2015-16. This included splitting the MAC West regular season title two years in a row and missing this years MAC tournament championship by 4 points.
- Whitford is entering his fourth season as head coach, making this team, really his team. In the past few years, he had players that were recruited by former head coach Billy Taylor and staff. If the past two seasons are any implication of what Whitford can do on the recruiting side of things, it should make this an interesting season.
- Hazen and Walton will still have an impact from the bench. Much like Taylor Persons and Ryan Weber had two and three years ago. This years two Power Five Conference transfers will be no different, allowing Ball State to play against top-notch competition all season long.
- The Cardinals really haven't lost a lot in terms of talent. While Franko House and Ryan Weber graduated, the Cardinals retain seven out of their nine men in their rotation, while adding talent.