Ball State men’s basketball player Ishmael El-Amin, 5, goes to pass around Kent State University player Desmond Ridenour, 32, during the first half of the game against Kent State Feb. 9 at John E. Worthen Arena. Ball State won the game 87-68. Briana Hale, DN
The vital role of Ball State men's basketball young bench
Gathering a missed jump shot, Ishmael El-Amin drives down the court, dribbling along press row at Worthen Arena, eventually getting stopped along the right wing.
Trailing him on the other side of the court was fellow freshman Zach Gunn who caught El-Amin’s pass in transition and immediately put up a long 3-pointer from the left wing, at least three feet deeper than NBA range, right in the face of a Toledo defender.
After the shot, Gunn tried to keep his cool jogging back down the court to Ball State’s bench. But as Toledo, now down 18 points late in the first half, called a 30-second timeout, El-Amin chased down his teammate, who was smiling at this point, to congratulate him on the shot.
At that point in the game, Gunn had six points — the most he's scored in a single game since Nov. 22 at Bucknell. He would finish with a career-high 16. El-Amin also finished with a career-high 18 points in the Cardinals 99-71 statement win over Toledo.
"You know, having a good game really helped because I've been struggling," Gunn said. "Obviously, I'm not going to have games like that the rest of the season, I wish I could. But I'm focused on playing well and doing all the little things, even if they don't show up on the stat sheet."
Coming into the game, Gunn had issues getting anything going offensively, scoring less than three points per game after his mid-season leg injury, which left him sidelined for six games. This came after he averaged 9.2 points per game in the first five contests of the year. He followed up his career-best performance with four points against Northern Illinois, fouling out in just nine minutes. El-Amin, on the other hand, had zero in the Cardinals 77-68 victory over the Huskies.
So, does the drop-off in scoring production for the freshman make the Toledo game an anomaly? Not necessarily.
Head coach James Whitford credited El-Amin's presence on the court Tuesday night, saying the freshman was key in helping the Cardinals go on a 20-6 run midway in the second half which led to their fifth straight Mid-American Conference victory.
"Ish, I thought in the half court needed to trade some of his shots for assists but the one thing he brought for us was a real spark with his pace," Whitford said. "I thought in that stretch we were playing really fast. We were able to get out on offense and the faster we play on situations like that the better."
Whitford also said that Gunn played "his best defensive game of the year," against Toledo. Against Northern Illinois, the matchup was tougher for the 6-foot-6 freshman was tasked with stopping the MAC's leading scorer in sophomore Eugene German, who continuously drove into the lane off pick-and-rolls, finishing with 25.
Coming off the bench, El-Amin, Gunn and redshirt sophomore Josh Thompson are Whitford's only consistent options in the current eight-man rotation, with senior Francis Kiapway getting sporadic minutes. This makes the young bench's role crucial to the Cardinals success in the final three games of the regular season and moving into the conference tournament.
And they seem to have the right mindset.
"We need to come in every day to practice and stay locked in," El-Amin said. "Don't change what you do, just work. [We] can't settle for what we did the week before."
As for Kiapway, there's always a chance that the senior, who sits third on the program's career list for 3-pointers made, makes a comeback as well.
"I talked to him and said that I'd be shocked if he doesn't get back in there at some point," Whitford said. "You never know and I'm not guaranteeing anything, but think about all the twists and turns our season has been through already. I'd be surprised if there's not one or two more, there usually is."