Ball State men's basketball looks to improve after best season in decade
Men’s basketball head coach James Whitford is excited. Excited that his team is returning more experienced players than he has ever had before.
“It feels good to have the experience and I feel like practices are competitive no matter how we split the teams up,” Whitford said
The Cardinals return four players who all started games for Whitford last season.
Whitford's third year coaching the Cardinals was his first one above the .500 mark. Ball State had not passed that mark since the 2011-12 season, but after winning 21 games last season the returning Cardinals are eager to continue the momentum they had.
The Cardinals experienced roster starts with senior forward Franko House. The Cardinals' leading scorer last season returns in the best shape of his life. House has dropped 25 pounds since his freshman season and added muscle to his already muscular build.
“To this day, I’m still having to figure out how to continue to make my body be better,” House said.
House started 30 games last season and only fellow senior forward Ryan Weber played more minutes than him. House had the second highest number of rebounds for the team last season just behind forward Bo Calhoun, who now plays in the Europe.
Whitford notes the similarities between Calhoun and House. Besides their height and weight, which are almost identical, Whitford sees a similar work ethic between his current and former team captains.
“Certainly all of [House's] teammates would look at him like Bo, as somebody who does it right every single day," Whitford said.
Weber will also be taking on a new leadership role this season. The fifth-year senior redshirted his freshman year and averaged 10.5 points per game last season. Weber shot 40 percent from 3-point range, which placed him eighth in the Mid-American Conference.
Weber said he is still working on improving his game and trying to find ways to get his teammates more involved. He said everyone is improving. The new members of the team are working just as hard.
“I think if we take care of business and work hard like we have been I think we can keep the momentum going into the season,” Weber said.
Point guard play will be crucial for the Cardinals this season. Ball State’s senior starting point guard Jeremie Tyler has been indefinitely suspended for a violation of team rules. In his absence, sophomore Tayler Persons, who sat out last year after transferring from Northern Kentucky University, will be next in line.
“[Persons] is going to have to be that force on the court. [Persons is] going to have to be the one that is like the quarterback on the court,” Whitford said. “He calls the plays, gets guys organized and does the things that that position requires.”
Alongside Persons is junior guard Francis Kiapway. Last season Kiapway averaged 8.6 points, 1.5 assists and 1.3 rebounds per game. Whitford said Kiapway is a different type of point guard than Persons. He said while Kiapway isn’t going to be able to create shots for other members, he is still a great player and can really stretch the floor. Persons will split time directing traffic for the Cardinals this season.
“I feel like both of those guys can handle that position and I think it's critical you have two that really know what they’re doing,” Whitford said.
The Cardinals open the season Nov. 11 on the road against Saint Louis as part of the MGM Grand Main Event. The event also includes the Nov. 18 game, when the Cardinals travel down south to take on Alabama. Ball State’s two games in Las Vegas will cap off the event when they take on Coppin State Nov. 21 and Southern Utah Nov. 23.
Three of the Cardinals' four true road games this season come against teams that participated in the National Invitation Tournament last season: Valparaiso, Alabama and North Florida. Valparaiso finished last season with a record of 30-7, Alabama finished 19-15 and North Florida was 22-12.
The MAC seems to be wide open for the Cardinals this season. After being named MAC West Division co-champions with Central Michigan last year, Ball State suffered a disappointing loss to Miami in the first round of the MAC tournament.
House said the Cardinals are looking for redemption this season.
“We got to be able to come into every game knowing that with our conference you can win any game it doesn’t matter,” House said. “It’s anybody any given night. A lot of guys took that loss and should be hungry to get to Cleveland.”
Even with losing in the MAC tournament, the Cardinals made the postseason for the first time in 14 seasons. Ball State made it to the quarterfinals of the CollegeInsider.com Postseason Tournament.
According to the MAC preseason coaches poll, Ball State is projected to finish second in the MAC West.
Whitford said right now he is just focusing on getting his team's mentality ready for the season. He said the philosophy of his program is to have a championship process.
“The thing that we have complete control over is having a championship program. The way we practice the way we live off the court the way we work everyday,” Whitford said. “No one has control of that except for the people in our locker room.”
The process begins Nov. 11 on the road in Saint Louis before returning home Nov. 15 when the Cardinals take on in-state rival Indiana State for the home opener.