MEN'S BASKETBALL: Young players face learning curve

Freshman point guard Zavier Turner eyes an opponent for an opening during the Nov. 4 game against Marian. Turner started off the season by scoring 17 points in each of the first three games of the season, but fell short during the Cardinals
Freshman point guard Zavier Turner eyes an opponent for an opening during the Nov. 4 game against Marian. Turner started off the season by scoring 17 points in each of the first three games of the season, but fell short during the Cardinals

Ball State’s top players so far

Zavier Turner:
31.7 minutes per game
14.2 points per game
40.3 field goal percentage
2.2 rebounds per game

Jesse Berry:
27.8 minutes per game
13.5 points per game
36.2 field goal percentage
0.7 rebounds per game

Chris Bond:
28.8 minutes per game
11.3 points per game
48 field goal percentage
4.5 rebounds per game

Majok Majok:
29.7 minutes per game
9.8 points per game
54.8 field goal percentage
11 rebounds per game

There were bound to be an abundance of learning curves for the Ball State men’s basketball team, with a first-year head coach coupled with a slew of freshmen.

Sitting at 2-4 and a last second shot away from being 3-3, the Cardinals had a lot to point to as foundations for success. Ball State’s first two losses had been competitive games against in-state opponents with higher talent levels and more mature players.

Ball State’s first loss came against Indiana State, a team that went into the Joyce Center and beat then-ranked No. 21 Notre Dame, on Larry Bird Day; its second loss was to Butler, a team that missed a buzzer beater to then-ranked No. 5 Oklahoma State.

Led by freshman point guard Zavier Turner, the new, up-tempo system that head coach James Whitford brought with him seemed to start taking form. Turner opened the season as well as any freshman, posting 17 points and four assists through his first three games.

But after the 58-59 loss to Butler, in which Turner’s last second shot fell short, Ball State showed it is still a team finding its identity. Back-to-back double-digit losses to Utah (69-88) and Cleveland State (55-78) saw Ball State allowing both teams to shoot more than 50 percent from the field. This tumbled the Cardinals to 2-4 and back to reality.

“I think it’s fool’s gold for anyone to think we’re a great team right now,” Whitford said. “Even if we would have thrown that ball in against Butler, we have a long way to go, and I know that.”

Utah, which is undefeated (6-0) and Cleveland State, which nearly knocked off No. 3 Kentucky, posed significant challenges for Ball State’s offense. The Cardinals shot a combined 38-102 for 37 percent, which was highlighted by the disappearance of Turner, who finished the road trip 7-19.

“Our job is to take our medicine from a tough road trip,” Whitford said. “Don’t point fingers, no explanations, no excuses. Just learn from it and get better.”

Learning has been the focal point this season for Whitford, who constantly preaches day-to-day improvement as his goal. After Saturday’s third straight loss, Whitford hosted a practice and film session Sunday to help his players leave those two games in the past, move forward and start the new week on the right note. He said after Monday’s practice, Ball State did just that.

Divided into three teams for most of the practice, Ball State went through what Whitford called its most competitive practice of the year. Whitford has been critical of his team’s intensity, citing that they have yet to play a full, aggressive 40 minutes.

“What I’m most concerned with is our practice culture and our day-to-day culture,” he said. “[We want to start] moving forward and getting better through the course of the year, and today, we took a step forward in that regard.”

It’s when the Cardinals lose intensity that the players start to make mental errors, like missing a cutter or not boxing out, allowing little swings to snowball into big runs. Despite the lopsided final scores, Ball State was able to cut its deficits to two possessions in the second half, but were never able to complete the comebacks.

“All the games that we’ve lost, it’s not that we can’t beat those teams, it’s just what we’re doing,” Turner said. “We’re beating ourselves. … When we’re closing leads, or things don’t go our way, we try and get it all back in one shot.”

The learning process will continue, as Ball State’s non-conference schedule does not get any easier, featuring opponents like Valparaiso, a tournament team last year and No. 25 Marquette, but wins and losses right now aren’t what is important to Whitford.

Whitford referenced his fellow Ball State basketball coach Brady Sallee’s season from a year ago. In Sallee’s first year coaching the women’s team, the Cardinals opened the season 4-10 in non-conference, only to finish the year on a 14-5 run that included two wins in the Women’s National Invitation Tournament.

“We want people to look at us in February and say, ‘Boy that team has come a long way,’” Whitford said.