MEN'S BASKETBALL: Defense, tempo key in intrastate matchup

Ball State freshman Zavier Turner splits Marian defenders at Worthern Arena Nov. 4. 
Ball State freshman Zavier Turner splits Marian defenders at Worthern Arena Nov. 4. DN PHOTO MARCEY BURTON

Since 1944 the Ball State and Butler University men’s basketball programs have met at least once for an annual clash. The streak that started during World War II continues on Saturday when the Bulldogs leave Hinkle Fieldhouse for the first time this season and travel north on I-69 to John E. Worthen Arena.

The 104th matchup between Ball State (2-1) and Butler (3-0) marks the beginning of a new chapter in the storied rivalry. Both teams are led by first-year coaches; James Whitford trying to right the Cardinal’s ship and Brandon Miller looking to continue Butler’s recent success.

Before the season started, Whitford noted that the most important non-conference games for Ball State were its intrastate opponents — specifically Butler.

“I think it’s the history of the two programs, how many years in a row we’ve played,” Whitford said. “And what they’ve accomplished of late certainly gives it added significance.”

Butler has won eight of the last 10 contests and holds a 65-38 advantage all-time, though Ball State holds a 5-4 edge in games played at Worthen, winning there last in the 2011-12 season. Through the years Butler has become the face of what mid-major schools aspire to achieve, a consummate program even reaching the national championship game in 2009-10 and 2010-2011 seasons.

“If you had a chance to beat them, it’s a big deal, because they’ve accomplished a lot,” Whitford said.

But with the conference realignments shaking up the landscape in college basketball, Butler has moved to the Big East.

Pike High School graduate and Indianapolis native Zavier Turner has been surrounded by Butler basketball and was even recruited by Miller and his staff, before committing to Ball State.

The freshman point guard has been the catalyst for Ball State’s early triumphs, averaging 17 points and four assists — the best numbers from a Ball State freshman since the early 1970’s.

“As long as we play like we did [against Southeast Missouri] it shouldn’t be a problem,” Turner said.

Butler plays straight-up man-to-man defense for 40 minutes, and does it better than anyone Ball State has faced, said Whitford. But the Bulldogs are susceptible to dribble-drive penetration, something Vanderbilt exploited and took Butler into overtime on Tuesday. Turner’s quick first step and poised handles seem perfect to manipulate Butler’s weakness, but the key will be his decisions mentally, not physically.

“The easy part is to drive the ball, the hard part is to know when,” Whitford said. “That’s the trick for us, driving when the defense is rotating and the spacing is good.”

Most important for Ball State will be the ability to get out and run in transition, playing its game and not slowing the game down. The half court game favors Butler, which has developed the reputation for being surgically precise in its sets. But this season, the Bulldogs have shown they can break out and score quickly too, averaging over 80 points a game and shooting 48 percent from the field, making Whitford believe there will be an abundance of possessions.

Whitford noted that for as well as Ball State has played on the offensive end — averaging nearly 78 points itself — the defense is still a work in progress. This week in practice, Ball State has been working on defending screens, both on the ball and off.

The Cardinals will have to be aware of where Kellen Dunham is on the court at all times. The sharp-shooting sophomore is averaging 18 points and shooting 40 percent from three. Butler’s senior captain Khyle Marshall is another capable scoring threat, who went for a career-high 26 against Vanderbilt and is averaging 16 for the season.

Ball State and Butler’s games earlier this week came down to the final possessions, something Whitford sees possibility happening again.

“I’d certainly say there’s a very good chance this one does [go down to the wire],” Whitford said. “They usually do between these kind of teams, they’re really good and we’re going to have to play well to have a chance to win, but if we play our best we’re going to be right there at the end.”