To make the NCAA women's basketball tournament, the path is simple: win the Mid-American Conference Tournament and earn the automatic bid.

But Ball State coach Brady Sallee wants to get the Cardinals to the point where they're considered good enough to make the NCAA tournament even with a slip-up in Cleveland.

"Some people might look at me and say, 'man, this guy's crazy.' And that's OK, maybe I am," Sallee said. "But I'm not scared about it at all."

Returning starters

Freshman guard Carmen Grande: 6.4 points per game, 5.0 assists per game, 1.7 steals per game

Junior forward Moriah Monaco: 11.3 points per game, 4.4 rebounds per game

Senior guard Jill Morrison: 9.8 points per game, 3.2 assists per game

Senior center Renee Bennett: 9.8 points per game, 5.7 rebounds per game

Key departures

Nathalie Fontaine: Ball State's all-time leading scorer, 20.6 points per game, 10.2 rebounds per game

Shelby Merder: 17.6 minutes per game, 4.1 points per game

The goal, of course, is still to get that guaranteed bid that comes with the conference championship — with the usual tropes about taking it one day at a time.

Still, Sallee said it's not an impossible achievement to get to that level, though no MAC team has received an at-large bid to the tournament since March 1996.

"Four years ago, if I'd've told you we're going to hang four banners in our first four years, you'd've had a similar question — how realistic is that?" Sallee said. "If you're not willing to put that out there and build towards it, it's never going to happen."

Ball State is coming off of four consecutive appearances in the Women's National Invitation Tournament, the longest post-season streak in program history.

Last season, the Cardinals finished 22-10 (13-5 MAC) and were the No. 3 seed in the conference tournament, but were knocked out by No. 6 Eastern Michigan in the tournament.

The good news is that four starters return from that squad. The bad news is that the one who isn't coming back is Ball State's all-time leading scorer, Nathalie Fontaine.

Fontaine was second in the MAC with 20.6 points per game last season and also second with 10.2 rebounds per game. She was also MAC Player of the Year.

"It's fun for me just to see who wants the heat and who's willing to jump out there," Sallee said. "And really, the idea I had going into the season to replace [Fontaine], once these guys kind of took it amongst themselves to kind of jump in and play different positions, it looks totally different than what I thought it was going to. And that's fine, that's good."

Fontaine was listed as a 6-foot-2-inch guard, but she primarily played in the post. Sallee likes moving his players around, describing his ideal offense as "positionless." He also said junior Moriah Monaco, a 6-foot-1-inch forward who attempted 206 three-pointers last year , will be one of the keys to his flexible system.

"We space the floor, and there's been a reason for that, but now we need her inside," Sallee said. "We need her on the perimeter, we need her in the high post, we need her in a lot of different places. And she's been more than willing and been really good in that role so far."

Monaco hit 34 percent of her three-point attempts last season and was second on the team with 11.3 points per game. She was also born in March 1996, the same month Kent State earned the MAC's last at-large bid.

"I like the challenge to come in and try to fill Nathalie's shoes," Monaco said. "I want to do that."

The other three returning starters are senior guard Jill Morrison, sophomore guard Carmen Grande and senior center Renee Bennett. Morrison and Bennett each averaged 9.8 points per game, tied for third on the team.

"The pressure wasn't really on us, it was more like we were on [Fontaine's] back," Morrison said. "Now everyone has to show up every day, every game. You can't just have a day off because we're expected to do more."

Grande in particular will be asked to do more, Sallee said. As a freshman last year, she won the starting point guard job and was fourth in the MAC with 5.0 assists per game and fifth with 1.7 steals per contest.

"She had a great freshman year and now she's got to take control of this team in between the lines," Sallee said. "Our tempo's got to be her tempo. She's got to be the head of the snake defensively."

With Sallee's high-pressure defense, Grande said the chemistry between the returning starters — plus whoever fills the fifth spot — is one of Ball State's strengths. She said she trusts her teammates to cover for her in the post if a steal attempt at the top of the arc goes awry.

"We just want to make them inefficient," Grande said. "Even if [individual players] score 20 points, if they shoot the ball 40 times then we're fine."

Several 20-win opponents dot Ball State's schedule, including Auburn (20-13, 8-8 SEC), Purdue (20-12, 10-8 Big Ten) and Western Kentucky (27-7, 15-3 Conference USA).

"The key to a schedule is you've got to win them," Sallee said. "So for each team that you have, you've got to put a schedule together where our kids go out and think they can win every game we play. Clearly Auburn is good, Purdue is good, Western Kentucky is good — but so are we."

Wins against those schools, plus a strong regular season in the MAC, would help give the Cardinals the type of résumé that could help them be in contention for an at-large bid.

At basketball media day, Sallee said his goal is to win every game on the schedule, and the team will get its first shot at 11 a.m. Nov. 11 at Worthen Arena when it hosts Arkansas-Pine Bluff in the season opener.

But if the Cardinals slip up at some point — especially in the MAC Tournament — he's been there before.

Early in his coaching career, he was an assistant coach for a Kent State program that made four NCAA tournament appearances in his seven years as an assistant — including an at-large bid in March 1996.

"The last team in the MAC to get the at-large. I was on that staff," Sallee said. "So I know what it looks like, and that's the vision we have for the program, too."