Forward Tahjai Teague goes up for a shot and is defended by Bradley’s Jojo McGlaston during the Cardinals’ game against the Braves in 2016 in Worthen Arena. Ball State will host Saint Francis for an exhibition game on Nov. 6. Paige Grider, DN File
Takeaways from a conversation with men's basketball coach James Whitford
Head coach James Whitford and staff are finalizing pieces for the Ball State men’s basketball team as just three weeks separate them from the 2017-18 campaign.
“It’s great, this is always a fun time of the year in college basketball,” Whitford said. “Players are eager to get here, and freshman are eager to get started.”
Here are a few things to expect from the Cardinals after a preseason conversation with Whitford.
Finding the senior leader
For the past two seasons, Ball State has had leaders that, in Whitford’s words, had an “impeccable work ethic.” Last year, it was Franko House who replaced Bo Calhoun, and Whitford says he’s relying on one of the seniors this year, to fill another void.
“We’re going to miss Franko as a player on the court, but we can overcome that with other bodies,” Whitford said. “The part that we can’t overcome is if those [seniors] don’t fill that void this year to make sure that their commitment off the court is right.”
Seniors Francis Kiapway, Jeremie Tyler and Sean Sellers all played significant roles in Ball State’s rotation last year, but as the season progresses, one of them is expected to fill a two-time All-MAC player’s role.
Rotation still in question
Small injuries have made finalizing a rotation difficult for Whitford as the regular season approaches.
“What’s really challenging this year, is getting a sense of which guys are going to be on the court,” Whitford said. “We have a number of bodies that have been missing and it’s tough to get a sense of … who we’re going to have on the court.”
Junior Trey Moses was out the first few practices with a hamstring injury, that along with other small injuries make it too early to say who will fill out the rotation.
The seven of nine rotation players returning – Kiapway, Tyler, Sellers, Moses, junior Tayler Persons and sophomore Tahjai Teague – will likely see significant time on the floor. As far as how much playing time everyone will see? That will be answered on Nov. 10 against Dayton.
Culture has shifted
In his first four years as head coach, Whitford has been trying to change the “culture” of the men’s basketball program. As he enters his fifth year at the helm, he thinks it's to a place where he wants it to be.
“Getting the culture more towards how I wanted it, it took a while,” Whitford said. “It’s an ongoing process, you better work at it every single day.”
The first time Whitford said the shift was noticeable was in the summer between his second and third year, right before Ball State had one of the best turnarounds in the NCAA. Each of the past two seasons, the Cardinals have won 20-plus games and a pair of Mid-American West Division Championships.
When asked about his goals, however, Whitford didn’t discuss another conference championship, he just wants his team to focus on themselves.
“If we can maximize who we are and we can lock in on being the best we’re capable of being every single day, then that other stuff usually takes care of itself,” Whitford said. “If you focus on that other stuff, guess what, maybe you think you’re better than these other teams and you’re not working as hard as you need to every single day.”
Early season is tough
In its first five games of the year, Ball State will play four teams that have made the NCAA tournament in the past two seasons – two reached the Final Four.
On top of that, Ball State will play five teams that finished in the RPI top 80 in its non-conference schedule – Dayton (36), Oregon (7), Bucknell (66), Notre Dame (22) and Valparaiso (78).
“Trying to get national attention for our program has always been a primary goal for me as a coach,” Whitford said.
While he admits the schedule is not ideal, traveling all across the country as part of ESPN’s Phil Knight Invitational, Whitford says it is important to get more exposure to the program.
That exposure comes with a lot of competition as well; competition Ball State hasn’t seen in its non-conference schedule in recent years. Finishing with back-to-back 10-plus non-conference wins may prove to be more difficult this season.
Future is bright
It’s unknown just how much the four freshman will play this season, but it is fair to say that Ball State basketball has a bright outlook on the future.
Transfers Brachen Hazen and K.J. Walton won’t be playing this season due to NCAA transfer rules, but they will certainly help the team compete against top-notch competition on the practice floor.
“K.J. and Brachen are obviously really good players, that stands out right away,” Whitford said. “They’re going to bring a lot to the table twelve months from now.”
Outside of that, there are several new faces that have the potential to make a mark as the season starts.
Junior Jontrell Walker will see his first action with Ball State after sitting out last season due to NCAA transfer rules. Walker averaged 13.1 points and was named the 2015 Southland Conference Freshman of the Year at Incarnate Word.
Freshman Ishmael El-Amin and Zach Gunn also show promise after impressive careers prior to college.
El-Amin is the son of former Connecticut point guard and profressional basketball player Khalid El-Amin. He led his high school to a 31-1 record and state championship as a junior.
Gunn, who graduated from Hamilton Southeastern, finished as the all-time leading scorer (1,660). The Indiana All-Star Team selection averaged 21.1 points and 8.5 rebounds as a senior.
Ball State men's basketball opens up its schedule with a road game against Dayton on Nov. 10. Its first home game is at 7 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 17 against Stony Brook.