Members of the men's basketball team huddle up under the basket during the game against Alabama State on Dec. 22, 2016 at Worthen Arena. Ball State won 73-48. Breanna Daugherty, DN File
Entering MAC play, Ball State is right where it should be
Ball State men's basketball coach has been focused on one thing this entire season - constant improvement.
This 9-4 team that's riding an eight-game win streak is a lot better than the team that started 1-4 taking on one of the toughest travel stretches for any Division l team.
But through the rough start to the season, to the team's first ever top 10 road win against then-ranked No. 8 Notre Dame until now, Whitford has focused on March.
Central Michigan - 11-2 (0-0)
Ball State - 9-4 (0-0)
Eastern Michigan - 9-4 (0-0)
Toledo - 8-5 (0-0)
Western Michigan - 8-5 (0-0)
Northern Illinois - 7-6 (0-0)
Bowling Green - 9-4 (0-0)
Buffalo - 8-5 (0-0)
Akron - 7-5 (0-0)
Ohio - 7-5 (0-0)
Miami - 7-6 (0-0)
Kent State - 6-7 (0-0)
"The thing I feel good about as a coach is we've gotten a lot better in the last five or six weeks," Whitford said in a press release. "It's a long season, so obviously we have to keep getting better. The team that improves the most between now and March is the one that gives themselves the best chance to win the conference tournament."
Coming into conference play Ball State is right where it needs to be - on pace for another 20-win season. The nine victories are one shy of the Cardinals most non-conference wins since the 1988-89 season and could have been the best if they held on against Dayton and Bucknell in two of the first four games of the year.
The rest of the Mid-American Conference, however, also saw success in their non-conference schedules, with only Kent State finishing with a sub .500 record. According to the Ken Pomeroy rankings, Ball State is ranked No. 118 in the country, the best among MAC schools.
As a team, Ball State doesn't rank at the top in any single statistical category. Even the Cardinals leading scorer Tayler Persons (15.2 PPG) comes in at No. 13 in the conference.
With the return of junior center Trey Moses and rotation that features 10 different players, seven of which that have averaged more than 20 minutes per game, Ball State is just as dangerous as any MAC team entering conference play.
Ball State will be tested right away with games against Eastern Michigan (9-4) and Buffalo (8-5) who was favored to win the East Division, according to preseason rankings. Both of those games will be played at home, where Ball State is 7-0 so far this season.
Ball State then takes on Ohio (7-5) and the preseason West Division favorite Western Michigan (8-5) on the road the following week. The Cardinals were selected to finish second in the West Division in the MAC preseason rankings.
"It's an exciting time," Whitford said. "I don't care what conference you're in, conference basketball is always a little bit special. I always feel that way, especially in our conference because it's such a dogfight. I think everyone is salivating a little bit to get started with what is going to be a really competitive league every night you play. It's going to be a lot of fun."
Fun is the opportune expression as the new year brings conference play, but if the team's first NCAA Tournament appearance is truly the goal, the season truly begins against Eastern Michigan on Jan. 2.
Contact men's basketball reporter Robby General at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter@rgeneraljr.