At this point last year, five Ball State University freshmen and two transfer players were anxiously awaiting the tip-off of their first Division I basketball game.
Exactly one year later, six of those players return with a whole season of experience and lead one of the more experienced Cardinals men's basketball squads of the past few seasons into Worthen Arena for Friday's season opener against Valparaiso University.
"You don't understand, I'm so excited right now," sophomore guard Pierre Sneed said. "Words can't explain how ready I am to get out there, play some defense and win a basketball game."
Sneed started eight games for Ball State last season and was one of four freshmen to earn at least six starts in 2008-09. The other freshman — center Zach Fields — was redshirted and is expected to make his debut for the Cardinals this season.
Now sophomores, those four 2008-09 freshmen — which are Sneed, guard Randy Davis, forward Mo Hubbard and center Jarrod Jones — are all expected to build upon a season last year that saw Ball State capture a co-Mid-American Conference West Division championship and advance to the MAC Tournament semifinal game.
"We have a young ballclub; we still have a lot of growing to do," third-year coach Billy Taylor said. "But I am pleased with the direction we are going and encouraged by the intensity that I've seen and the focus and the willingness to grow as a group."
Taylor said that this early in the season, the goals of his team are simplified.
"I think our overall team goals are to be able to play well and have a chance to win the MAC," he said. "But we're a long way from that. When you're early November, you're nowhere near what you're going to be in February or March, so for now, our goals are just to be able to come out and play good, consistent, tough, hard-nosed defense, share the basketball on offense, and just try to get better each and every day."
The Cardinals, who finished 14-17 (7-9 MAC) last season, have history on their side for Friday night's game against the Crusaders.
Ball State owns a 39-9 (.813) all-time record in home openers held in Muncie, including last season's 72-59 win over Eastern Illinois University to open the 2008-09 campaign.
Junior forward Malik Perry heads into this season with the most amount of experience of any player on the Cardinals' roster. A two-year starter that Taylor describes as his best defender, Perry said preseason practices have been more smooth this season than in years past.
"I think due to the fact that we have a lot more guys that are familiar with the system, I think we're more fluent with the offense as far as passing and screening and things of that sort," said Perry, who averaged 4.1 points and 4.9 rebounds in 29 games last season. "Practice has been great — it's been a learning experience for the younger guys and the new guys, but also refreshing for us older guys."
Taylor noted Perry, Jones and the two seniors — guard Brawley Chisholm and forward Terrence Watson — as the team leaders this season. Nothing will be different in Taylor's approach, as defense will again be key for a Ball State team that held opponents to a 59.7 points-per-game average, including 16 opponents under 60 points and four under 50, last season.
"I think our identity is found on the defensive end of the floor," Taylor said. "Our guys bought into that early in the preseason with our conditioning efforts and our individual skill instruction — really committed themselves to being successful defensively. So I think that's where we find our identity."
Defensively, the Cardinals will have to deal with a Valparaiso backcourt with plenty of weapons at its disposal.
The Crusaders finished a lowly 9-22 (5-12 Horizon League) last season, but played most of the season without two-year starting guard Brandon McPherson, who was forced to sit out with a medical redshirt following injury complications.
McPherson, an Indiana All-Star his senior season at Lawrence North High School where he played beside current NBA stars Greg Oden and Mike Conley Jr., has been one of the top deep threats in the Horizon League the past few seasons. He finished the 2006-07 season second in the league with a .448 3-point field goal percentage and was also sixth with 3.3 assists per game.
McPherson had seven points and two assists when the Crusaders defeated the Cardinals 71-58 two seasons ago in Valparaiso.
"[McPherson is] very talented, can create, can get in the paint and score, he's got a good handle, makes 3s from deep, very good off-ball screen action — certainly someone that I think their team missed last year," Taylor said. "He clearly seems to be the leader for their ballclub."
Valparaiso is also leaning on the services of junior guard/forward Michael Rogers, who is looking for a breakout season this year after finishing last season second on the team in both scoring (9.9 ppg) and rebounding (4.9 rbg).
Perry said he'll be ready if matched up against Rogers.
"I'm just a tenacious defender," Perry said. "Whatever I have to do defensively just to get in his head or just to stop him, that's what I will do. I think I'm capable and confident enough that I should be fine with anybody."
Tip-off for Friday's game is set for 7 p.m.