Ball State head coach James Whitford watches his players on the court furing the game against Buffalo on Jan. 6 in John E. Worthen Arena. Kaiti Sullivan, DN
Tough road stretch gives Ball State chance to make statement in MAC
It's not time to freak out, not by a long shot.
Following Ball State's 20-point loss to Buffalo on Jan. 6 that might be a natural reaction for some. But if there's one thing that the Cardinals have proven this year, it's that they're resilient. If beating Mid-American Conference East Opponent Ohio 75-68 for the first time since 2011 isn't enough to prove that, here are a few more examples from this year:
They were resilient starting the year with a 1-4 record when head coach James Whitford shook off any questions about win-loss records and won the next nine in-a-row.
1) Buffalo – (11-5, 3-0)
2) Miami – (9-7, 2-1)
3) Bowling Green – (11-5, 2-1)
4) Ohio – (8-7, 1-2)
5) Kent State – (7-9, 1-2)
6) Akron – (7-8, 0-3)
1) Ball State (11-5, 2-1)
2) Toledo (10-6, 2-1)
3) Western Michigan (10-6, 2-1)
4) Eastern Michigan (10-6, 1-2)
5) Central Michigan (12-4, 1-2)
6) Northern Illinois (8-8, 1-2)
They were resilient to start this season after the loss of teammate Zach Hollywood.
This team always finds a way to bounce back and needs to prove that the big loss against Buffalo was just an anomaly.
"One of the things I talked to them about before the game is that Buffalo scouted us very well and you could almost see us being discouraged," Whitford said following the win against Ohio. "We talked about it and my point to them was, 'This is conference play. The next 16 [games] is going to be scouted just as well.'
"It's about executing regardless of if they know what's coming or not. ... It's about the details of what we do because they're going to know what's coming between now until we get into a postseason tournament."
Ball State plays five of its next seven games on the road, including contests against fellow MAC West Division leaders Western Michigan (10-6, 2-1 MAC) and Toledo (10-6, 2-1 MAC). The Rockets handled Western Michigan 84-61 on Jan. 9, making its Jan. 13 game against Ball State (11-5, 2-1 MAC) a needed victory for the Broncos.
"They're a great team," Whitford said of Western Michigan. "If there's been a constant for us, since we got in the league, it's that Western [Michigan] is going to be good. ... It's going to be a really heated battle, we all know that."
Ball State also plays Kent State (Jan. 23) and Akron (Jan. 27), two more conference teams Whitford is winless against in his tenure, Central Michigan (Jan. 16), a team that boasts the best overall record in the MAC, and Miami (Jan. 20) and Eastern Michigan (Feb. 3).
So why is this stretch of games so important for Ball State in the long run? Because last season, there were four teams who finished with 11-7 conference records, including Ball State and Western Michigan. One conference loss can make the difference between a first round bye or an unfavorable conference tournament run.
Whitford already snapped his coaching losing streak against Ohio. After the win he talked about how the Buffalo game was an "outlier" for the Cardinals.
And that's exactly what it was.
Let's face it, Buffalo is playing like the best team in the MAC right now, beating conference opponents by an average of 17 points. With an RPI rank of 35 and the only team undefeated in the conference, it's hard to argue against that.
Ball State is third in the conference in field goal percentage (.457) and has really yet to find its stride from behind the arc with a .338 percentage, good for ninth in the MAC. If there's one thing that can be said about this Ball State team, it's this: When they're knocked down, they always get back up.
Right now, the Cardinals have a chance to make a statement in the MAC.