BEYOND VARSITY: Season preview via mid-majority

As we gear up for another season of Ball State basketball, I can't help but be ecstatic.

I'm not sure what it is — the fluidity of the game, the sounds of shoes and the ball on the hardwood or the more intimate atmosphere of the arena environment — but I love college basketball.

As the Ball State men's team prepares for its season opener, I tried to think of the best way to get ready for basketball to be back in Muncie.

My fix: Call the man who knows mid-majors.

Kyle Whelliston runs the site, which covers the 25 mid-major conferences. He'll attend about 100 games this season, including 16 games in two weeks starting Friday.

The man knows college basketball, especially the teams you don't hear about every day.

I spoke with him, and we discussed his new book (more on that Friday), the MAC and Ball State.

Whelliston tried to set me straight about the MAC, using phrases like "tight-knit" and "great" to describe the conference.

"There's nothing wrong with the MAC," he said.

My premise was that the MAC was in a slump. The MAC hasn't received an at-large bid since 1999 and hadn't won an NCAA Tournament game since 2003 before Ohio's upset of Georgetown.

Whelliston pointed out that national success doesn't necessarily indicate conference quality.

"The key to MAC basketball, having experienced it," he said, "is that it's fantastic basketball."

The MAC has tremendous facilities, Whelliston said. He said Ball State fans should watch games from even smaller conferences.

"When you do, you start appreciating what you have," he said.

Whelliston said the MAC's strength is its parity, pointing out there are few bad teams every year.

Discussing Ball State, Whelliston had kind things to say about Billy Taylor. He said the Cardinals have some great players, such as Randy Davis.

The big question I have for Ball State this season is whether the team has figured out how to win. The talent is certainly there. The Cardinals have controlled their path to the MAC West title and the important first-round bye in the MAC Tournament the past two seasons. In 2009, they stumbled their way to the No. 2 seed. In 2010, they blew it, falling all the way to No. 8 and a first-round exit.

Whelliston talked about how important getting that bye is for the MAC Tournament. This year, it will take only nine or 10 wins to win the division.

If the Cardinals are on the move, I think they're rising within the conference hierarchy. But have the Cardinals found a winning instinct? Will they be headed toward another MAC West crown and try to make a run at their first NCAA Tournament bid since 2000?

We'll get our first clue Sunday.


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