MEN’S BASKETBALL: Freshmen playing key role in Ball State’s early successes

Freshman forward Franko House tries to keep the ball away from a Taylor University player on Nov. 12 at Worthen Arena. DN PHOTO BREANNA DAUGHERTY
Freshman forward Franko House tries to keep the ball away from a Taylor University player on Nov. 12 at Worthen Arena. DN PHOTO BREANNA DAUGHERTY

No freshman on Ball State’s roster has any plans of being a one-and-done to the NBA, but collectively, the youth has made an instant impact for the Cardinals.

Outside of starting point guard Zavier Turner, nobody really knew what to expect from the new faces on Ball State’s roster. The freshmen quickly acquainted themselves, however, getting substantial minutes. Through the first three games, head coach James Whitford played at least four freshmen early and often, though there have been sparing moments when no freshmen were on the court for the Cardinals.

“That’s the team you’re going to see all season,” Whitford said, referring to playing so many freshmen after the Taylor game. “The way we play, you can’t just play six or seven guys. And that’s going to force guys to step up.”

But now that the freshmen are not getting minutes to give other players a blow, Whitford has come to expect valuable production and no drop-off in performance from his underclassmen.

Against Southeast Missouri on Monday, Ball State’s starters found themselves in an early 2-11 hole six minutes into the game. Whitford went to his bench and employed his young lineup of freshmen including Turner, Quinten Payne, Mark Alstork and Franko House along with sophomore Bo Calhoun.

“We love playing together,” Payne said. “I think coach [Whitford] is trying to get us all a lot of minutes because next year, we’re going to be really young.”

Those five injected a spurt of energy, crashing the offensive class and opening up in transition, and gave the Cardinals the lead after a 12-2 run. All four freshmen played at least 16 minutes en route to the team’s second win of the year.

“When we subbed in the young guys, we really got our confidence and energy back,” Whitford said. “I thought it catapulted us from there.”

The prowess of Turner is well known ­— averaging 17 points and 4 assists as one of the best freshman starts in Ball State history — garnering questions of when the last time Ball State has had a point guard this talented after just three collegiate starts, but his three freshmen counterparts have proven they are more than capable.

Payne has lead the team in assists (5) twice this season, Alstork has the body-type and athleticism, which he showed slamming the exclamation point to the 12-2 run, and House is vying for a starting spot with his production in the paint.

“It’s all about relaxing,” Payne said after dishing out five assists against Taylor. “All freshmen kind of just have to get comfortable playing the college game.”

As the freshmen have calmed down and progressed in Whitford’s system, the national media have started to take notice. After pulling in 11 rebounds against Southeast Missouri, ESPN’s Dan Dakich tweeted out to his 62,000-plus followers that House is an eventual Mid-American Conference Player of the Year.

Whitford said this season, his four seniors will carry the team as far as it can go, but thus far, the freshmen have shown they’re integral components to any success Ball State wants to have.

“We’ve got a long road ahead of us … but I’m telling you, we’re getting better,” Whitford said. “And if we stay on this path, we’re going to be a team nobody wants to play in February.”