Freshman guard Ishmael El-Amin, pushes past Bowling Green’s Rodrick Caldwell in the first half, Feb. 6 at John E. Worthen Arena. The team reached the Sweet 16 in 1990 before falling to eventual National Champion UNLV. Grace Hollars, DN
Men's basketball: A program nearly as old as the game itself
Editor's note: In honor of the university's centennial year, The Daily News is counting down 100 days to the university's celebration Sept. 6 with 100 of Ball State's most famous traditions and figures. Check back each day to read about Cardinal history.
Thirty-five years after the creation of the game of basketball, Ball State men’s basketball was born.
Since then, the program has evolved and progressed along with the rest of the game, making it a perfect fit for a state so passionate about the sport.
In 1920-21, the program’s first season, Ball State played just five games and finished with a 1-4 record, scoring as many as 27 points and as few as 10. Ninety-seven years later, the Cardinals finished their most recent season playing 32 games and dropping 111 points inside Worthen Arena.
The most memorable season in program history became a Cinderella run in the NCAA Tournament in 1990.
After finishing the regular season atop the Mid-American Conference and annihilating Central Michigan in the conference tournament championship, the Cardinals earned another berth in the NCAA Tournament. They announced their arrival with a thrilling 54-53 victory over Oregon State, which was then led by eventual NBA Hall of Famer Gary Payton. During that game, Muncie Central graduate Chandler Thompson led all scorers with 24 points on 60 percent shooting from the floor. Payton was second in the game with 11 points.
Ball State made its only Sweet 16 appearance in history by following up that performance with another nail-biter via a 62-60 victory against Louisville. Thompson again came up big for Ball State, securing a crucial rebound with seven seconds to go to complement a 15-point performance. A missed three-pointer sent Ball State to its first and only Sweet 16.
When the team arrived to Oakland, California, they met eventual champion UNLV. The Cardinals went toe to toe with the Runnin’ Rebels, but an errant lob at the buzzer spelled the end of their season, finishing with a 26-7 record. Ball State would end up as the only team UNLV failed to beat by double digits in the tournament.
Since then, Ball State has appeared in three NCAA Tournaments (1993, 1995, 2000) but has never made it past the first round.
The prior year, the team had a better record at 29-3 — its best mark in school history — but it fell in the Round of 32 to Illinois, who would eventually make an appearance in the Final Four.
For all the buzz Ball State built in the basketball world in 1989 and 1990, a Muncie native who arrived to the program in 1994 put the ball in the basket and picked pockets more than anyone else.
Bonzi Wells (1994-98) leads the program in points (2,485), field goals made (913) and career steals (347). He finished his senior year as a finalist for the John Wooden Player of the Year award. Ball State retired Wells’ number 42 jersey six years after he was out of the program. He played for five NBA teams and averaged a career high 17 points per game for the Portland Trail Blazers in the 2001-02 season.
Wells and Ray McCallum (1979-83) are the only players in program history to eclipse 2,000 points. McCallum finished his career with 2,109 and went on to coach the team from 1993-2000, accumulating a 126-76 record. McCallum is the only coach in program history to reach 100 wins while maintaining a winning percentage over .600.
Ed Butler (1961-64) leads the program in rebounds with 1,231 to his name. Nine different times he pulled down 24 or more rebounds in a single game. No other Cardinal has reached 24 once.
Most recently, Sean Sellers reached the 1,000 point mark in 2018 to become the 30th player in school history to do so. In the midst of that, he broke Jesse Berry’s record (224) for career 3-pointers, finishing with 229. Teammate Francis Kiapway finished his career third with 207. Patrick Jackson (1998-2002) reached 202 to round out the players to make 200 or more 3’s in their career.
Dick Hunsaker (1989-93) finished his career with a program-best .740 winning percentage and led the team to its Sweet 16 berth and its 29-3 record.
Jim Hinga is the all-time leader in total wins as head coach with a 154-169 record from 1954-68, and he and McCallum are the only coaches in program history to earn over 100 wins.
With a record of 1210-1126, Ball State men’s basketball will hope to soon make another appearance in the NCAA Tournament, having been absent from The Big Dance since its last appearance in 2000.