MEN’S BASKETBALL: Ball State looks to take steps forward against Valparaiso

Senior guard Jesse Berry attempts to cover the Marion advance on Nov. 4. Ball State will take on Valparaiso Dec. 4. DN FILE PHOTO BREANNA DAUGHERTY
Senior guard Jesse Berry attempts to cover the Marion advance on Nov. 4. Ball State will take on Valparaiso Dec. 4. DN FILE PHOTO BREANNA DAUGHERTY

Ball State stats

Record: 2-4
Field goal percentage: 42.4
Three-point percentage: 34.9
Free throw percentage: 72.3
Turnovers per game: 15
Point differential average: -4.7

Valpo stats

Record: 5-4
Field goal percentage: 51.9
Three-point percentage: 40
Free throw percentage: 76.4
Turnovers per game: 14.6
Point differential average: 12.9

• Ball State comes into mid-week game against Valparaiso
• The Cardinals are on a three-game losing streak
• The head coach has focused on defense

It’s a process.

For the Ball State men’s basketball team (2-4) and head coach James Whitford, this has been their mantra. Already, the process has seen flashes of brilliance, weaving four freshmen, a sophomore and four seniors into a rotation to fit the new style and philosophy, but sustaining a full 40 minutes of consistent play has still alluded the Cardinals.

Currently on a three-game losing streak, two of which Ball State lost by 19 and 23, Whitford said they still have complete faith in the process and progression.

“Building that everyday work ethic is an inch-by-inch process,” he said. “But I know that we’re inching in the right direction.”

The 69-88 and 55-78 losses to Utah and Cleveland State were two more learning experiences.

“I’ve never really competed against another guard who I feel like at the end of the day can beat me,” freshman Zavier Turner said, referring to Cleveland State’s backcourt. “I took heat with that. I could hardly sleep that night, but I needed that for the simple fact that it let me know where I’m at.”

The training wheels came off early for the Cardinals, ripe with inexperience. Ball State’s four losses have come to teams with a combined record of 20-7. The team’s close losses included games against Butler and Cleveland State, teams which had a two-point loss to then-ranked No. 5 Oklahoma State and a seven-point loss to No. 3 Kentucky, respectively. It won’t get any easier when Valparaiso (5-4) comes to Worthen Arena today for Ball State’s sole December home game.

Coming off a NCAA Tournament appearance from a year ago, the Crusaders have established themselves as another quality opponent for the Cardinals.

“I have a lot of respect for Valpo,” Whitford said. “They’re a team banging on the door every year, they have a great culture in that place.”

Although led in scoring by 6-foot-8-inch stretch forward freshman Alec Peters at 15.6 points — shooting 47.7 percent from three — the Crusaders tout an experienced lineup, laden with five transfer players that have seen action at higher levels, including the Big East, the Big Ten and the Southeastern Conference.

Senior starting guards LaVonte Dority and Jordan Coleman, both transfers, provide the size — Dority at 6’1” and Coleman at 6’5” — and experience that have been a recipe for trouble for Ball State.

“I’ve been playing against bigger players my whole life; obviously, I’m short,” Turner, who is 5-foot-9, said. “I might be small, but I have a big heart, and I feel like I have something to prove every time I step on the court.”

Turner and his backcourt mate senior Jesse Berry, who eclipsed the 1,000 career point mark against Cleveland State, will need to prove they can defend on the ball better, something
Whitford drilled into the Cardinals this week in practice.

“Defense is all mental,” Turner said. “It’s easy to go and compete on offense, but you have to take pride in your defense.”

Turner and his teammates have gone up against a variety of defensive schemes from straight man-to-man to matchup zones to full-court zone presses. Each time, they have been able to generate at least some success. Valparaiso will add to the diversity of defenses playing a high 2-3 zone defense that can sometimes resemble a 1-3-1 zone defense looking for corner traps.

Ball State will look to take the ball to the wings for pick and rolls, forcing Valparaiso’s defenders to make split second decisions on which part of the zone to honor. In Ball State’s six games, teams have elected to crash the paint, negating all-conference center Majok Majok and leaving Cardinals open along the arc.

“It’s not easy to score when you have two guys coming at you every time you touch the ball,” Whitford said. “But I think [Majok] is making the right decisions with the ball. He’s a hard worker, and I wish I had more of him.”

But when Majok does kick the ball out, Ball State has been inconsistent in capitalizing. Losing 66.7 percent of its three-point shooters from a year ago, Ball State has had trouble replacing them. The consistency is a problem, but there have been several steps forward, leaving Whitford and his team confident in the approach.

“We are who we are, we got what we got, and it’s our job to constantly tweak it every day,” he said. “The answer is not to try five different schemes; it’s to get really good at what we do.

“We can play with Butler. And you look what [Butler] did against [then-ranked No. 5] Oklahoma State, I don’t think there is any reason to believe we can’t win.”