Early in the goings this season, the Ball State University men's basketball team has already had several problems thrown its way.
Whether it's matchup issues against 6-foot-9 point guards, seemingly impenetrable man and zone defenses or nationally ranked opponents, the Cardinals have received more than enough challenges in its pre-Mid-American Conference schedule.
Next up on the list comes in tonight's game at Indiana State University. The Sycamores enter the game shooting 76.7 percent as a team from the free throw line, which is ranked No. 17 in the nation.
Sophomore center Jarrod Jones said it will be important to remain aggressive defensively against Indiana State, but being aware of the Sycamores' talents at the charity stripe could mean the difference between a win and a loss.
"I think we stay aggressive and stick to our defensive principles," said Jones, who leads the Cardinals in scoring at 13.6 points per game. "But we need to be aware of the fact that they are great on the line, and we can't have stupid fouls and get them into the bonus early."
Indiana State (5-2) has several go-to options late in games to knock down critical free throws, led by junior forward Jake Kelly. The University of Iowa transfer — where last season he led the Hawkeyes in scoring at 11.2 points per game and was named All-Big Ten Honorable Mention — is shooting 85 percent from the free throw line.
Three other players — sophomore guard Dwayne Lathan (76.5 percent), junior center Brant Leitnaker (76.5) and senior guard Rashad Reed (75.0) — all are shooting over 75 percent with at least 10 free throw attempts for the Sycamores this season.
"Late in games, that's why they've been able to win some close ball games because they've made their free throws," Ball State coach Billy Taylor said. "We want to be in position to play from in front, play from the lead and make them chase us as opposed to us chasing them."
In stark contrast to Indiana State's ability to knock down the freebie has been Ball State's free throw shooting this season.
Though freshman Jauwan Scaife's 89.5 percent free throw mark is ranked No. 51 nationally, Ball State's 64.5 percent free throw showing ranks 252nd out of 334 NCAA teams.
Scaife, freshman guard Randy Davis and senior guard Brawley Chisholm have combined to shoot 83 percent from the line, but the rest of the team has struggled, converting a combined 52-of-94 (47 percent) of its free throws through five games for Ball State (2-3).
Taylor said another focus against the Sycamores is their lineup that oftentimes features four guards and one true center.
Though he has just one start this season, Lathan has played "starters minutes," according to Taylor, leading the Sycamores with 13.7 points- and 5.5 rebounds-per-game averages.
Lathan, measuring in at 6-foot-3, 190 pounds, transferred last season from Louisiana Tech where he ranked third in scoring (8.2) and led the team in blocked shots and was second in rebounding (3.9).
"We've got to be able to play Lathan without fouling him," Taylor said. "He's an excellent driver, he finishes well in the paint, he's shooting well over 50 percent from the floor, so he's taking good shots, he's converting shots, and he's also drawing fouls in the painted area."
Kelly, expected to be one of the top guards in the Big Ten this season, transferred to Indiana State in the offseason following the death of his mother. A Carmel, Ind., native, the NCAA granted him extraordinary circumstances and did not require the typical one-year transfer sit out period.
"With Jake Kelly on the other wing, it makes it a very difficult duo to stop," Taylor said of the 6-6 Kelly. "Because Kelly is very athletic, he can get in the paint as well, he shoots 3s.
"Those wings are very difficult to stop, and really we want to put a lot of pressure on our defense to keep them under control and contain their drives."
Tonight's game, broadcast on The Ball State Sports Network, is set for an 8:05 p.m. tipoff.