Banner chasing: Men's basketball has eyes on conference championship
It's been 18 years since the Ball State men's basketball team hung a banner from the rafters of Worthen Arena – this season, head coach James Whitford wants to change that.
"To me, there's two goals that I think about a lot," he said. "One is to hang a banner in Worthen Arena, to win an overall conference championship, and the second one is to get to the NCAA tournament."
Ball State hasn't won a conference tournament since the 1999-2000 season, but Whitford has gotten his players to buy into the mindset of being the first to do so in nearly 20 years.
In the pre-season media poll, Ball State was picked to finish second in the Mid-American Conference West Division behind Western Michigan.
Ball State has been close to winning the conference tournament, winning back-to-back MAC West Division titles and finishing with 20-plus win seasons each of the past two years.
Last season, Ball State came just short of a conference championship appearance, losing to No. 1 Akron 74-70 in the semifinal game.
This year, Ball State returns 70 percent of its scoring and seven out of its nine-man rotation from last year. Only three of which, Francis Kiapway, Jeremie Tyler and Sean Sellers, were a part of the Cardinals last losing season in 2014-15.
"I think the seven-win season, or whatever, was also about who we had on the team and our team chemistry," Kiapway said. "This year, I think the culture of the program took a big swing ... I think the culture has kind of been built and I think [this year] is the best it's ever been since I've been here."
Talking about his approach on success, Whitford doesn't constantly focus on a conference championship, instead he talks about "being consumed with the process of excellence."
"It would be perfect if we could go back and make it to March Madness," Tyler said. "Our goal right now is to get better. Coach is putting us in the perfect position to be successful by putting those teams on our non-conference [schedule] because those games are going to help us get ready for conference and we can take it from there."
Ball State opens up what is debatably one of its toughest non-conference schedules in Whitford's tenure, playing five opponents who have appeared in at least NCAA Tournament in the past two years.
It will also play in front of some of the biggest crowds some of these players have ever seen.
The highest attended game Ball State has seen in the past three seasons was on Dec. 20, 2014 when it traveled to San Diego State to play in front of 12,414 fans. This season, Ball State opens up play against Dayton, a team that averaged 13,018 fans per home game in 2016-17, good for No. 22 in the nation.
From there, Ball State will travel to Oklahoma and Oregon, both of which were among the top 50 Division l basketball attendance leaders, according to last season's NCAA attendance report.
"It's going to be really fun going out to these places that have big crowds and nice arenas," redshirt junior guard Tayler Persons said. "But you know, we're excited to play any team right now. ... We've been on road trips against tough opponents and things of that nature."
After traveling over 7,500 miles in its first five games, Ball State will return home to play six out of its last seven non-conference games at home, with the exception being No. 22 Notre Dame on Dec. 5.
On top of its three returning seniors, Ball State returns a lot of depth offensively and defensively. Persons was an All-MAC second team selection and junior forward Trey Moses, who is set to return to play after suffering an offseason hip injury, made the MAC All-Defensive team.
Other players that are expected to raise their roles this season include redshirt sophomore Tahjai Teague, sophomore Kyle Mallers and junior Jontrell Walker, who sat out last season due to transfer rules.
While Whitford says he expects a lot of returning players to step up, he expects Maller's role to increase significantly.
"He's just more athletic," Whitford said. "He's always been a good shooter, but he did not shoot the ball well for us last year and I know he's really invested that time and now he looks like the guy I would have seen all summer watching him play."
Ball State also has a pair of newcomers – freshman Ishmael El-Amin, son of former Connecticut point guard and professional player Khalid El-Amin, and Zach Gunn, Hamilton Southeastern's all-time leading scorer and rebounder – that proved their worth in Ball State's exhibition victory.
El-Amin finished the game with a team-highs in blocks (2) and assists (4) adding to his eight point night, while Gunn was on of two Cardinal players to finish with a double-double, pulling in 11 rebounds and scoring 12 points.
The biggest question mark coming into this season was finding someone to replace Franko House, not on the court, but as a leader.
Early on, Ball State has seems to have found that man.
"[I] definitely need to be a leader for this team, and to be honest, I look up to Francis 100 percent," Persons said. "He shows me and puts me in perspective every day in practice of how hard you've got to work."
Ball State begins its highly anticipated 2017-18 campaign at 7 p.m. on Nov. 10 at the University of Dayton.
Contact men's basketball reporter Robby General with comments at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @rgeneraljr