CHIRP: Akron brings tough challenge to Ball State
Division leaders meet to determine MAC supremacy
Before the Central Michigan game last Wednesday, coach Billy Taylor said his players were the most mentally engaged he'd seen in a while.
It showed on the court as Ball State dismantled Central Michigan 73-52 before picking up another road victory Saturday, winning 75-65 at Northern Illinois.
"We brought the same aggressiveness we've had at home and we brought it away," sophomore guard Jesse Berry said. "We understand our crowd isn't going to be as good [on the road]. But I think we did a great job feeding off each other."
The team will have some extra help getting fired up for Akron on Tuesday as Ball State hosts the Zips at 7 p.m. in Worthen Arena.
Ten days removed from the 51-48 give-away loss to Eastern Michigan, Taylor said it's important to regroup and control home court.
"It's important for us to get going early, especially after that loss to Eastern Michigan at home," Taylor said. "It was our first home loss in quite some time, but I'm hoping that was a wake up call for our guys. We need to re-establish our identity here at home."
Tuesday's game is the first of six in Ball State's annual crossover play into the Mid-American Conference East Division. Akron and Ball State both boast 4-1 records in the conference and lead the respective divisions.
Ball State's struggles this season have been, for whatever reason, against weaker teams. Besides Indiana State, Ball State has responded well to all its tougher competition and Berry said the team is eager to show fans they belong among the MAC elite.
To prove it, Ball State must contain the MAC's second leading scoring offense at 72.8 points per game. Berry said all the team's in the East Division like to run, so transition defense is key against Akron.
"Controlling the tempo is big," Berry said. "I think we need to have them play at our pace, our game. If we play into their hands — they kill teams with the transition three or getting to the rim. Keeping the guards out of the paint is another thing we gotta do. We just need to stop them."
Seven different Zips' players shoot 35 percent or better from behind the three-point arch. The team leads the MAC in three-point shooting percentage at over 39 percent.
Over the past two games, Ball State's shooting percentages resemble that of Akron's backcourt. Against Central Michigan and Illinois Ball State posted lines upwards of 54 percent shooting from the floor and 39 percent shooting from the three-point line.
"We're sharing the ball a lot," Berry said. "The drive-and-kicks are really open now that everyone is sinking in on Jarrod [Jones]. Central came with a double on him and we were knocking down shots. At Northern they sank really hard. Jarrod showed his unselfishness and passed it out to guys."
Getting double teamed is something Jones is used to by now. Berry said Jones' success throughout his career is worthy of all the defensive attention.
"To be honest, Jarrod is the best scorer on our team," Berry said. "He can easily average 20 per game. I think the double team is a little frustrating, but I think he's handled it really well. He's one of the best players I've ever played with."
Against Akron, Jones faces 7 ft. junior center Zeke Marshall. Marshall leads the MAC in blocked shots at 2.8 per game, good enough for 16th most in the NCAA. That switches some things up offensively for Ball State, but Berry said it's nothing the team isn't ready for.
"I don't think we've played a seven-footer yet, so it'll be a new look," Berry said. "I think they're gonna play him one-on-one, but I don't think they can. Jarrod is going to win that match up. As far as guards and stuff, we gotta drive in with a plan. He's going to block shots, but I think we'll be fine with that too."
Taylor said the team needs to play through Jones in the paint like every other game, so his continued patience will be key.
"Zeke is one of the top shot blockers in the nation for a reason — because he goes after them," Taylor said. "He makes plays on the ball. They can afford to do that [let Marshall be aggressive] because they can bring guys off the bench. He's gotten even bigger and stronger this season, so he can handle the abuse of MAC play."
Ball State went 1-5 in the division crossover last season, including a 75-60 loss to Akron. Taylor said Akron's combination of rugged interior players mixed with dead-eye shooters is the team's blueprint for success.
This season isn't any different. The Zips have advanced to the MAC Tournament Championship the last four years. After losing the first two games, Akron has received an NCAA Tournament berth the past two seasons.
Taylor said that kind of winning tradition doesn't go unnoticed, making this an important test for his team.
"Until you get to that level of championship success, you're always trying to prove yourself," Taylor said.