Just over two weeks separate Ball State men’s basketball from its season opener against Dayton on Nov. 10.

Head coach James Whitford and team leaders Jeremie Tyler, Francis Kiapway and Tayler Persons addressed the media on Ball State basketball's media day.

Here are some initial reactions: 

Championship expectations

Neither Whitford nor the players were hesitant about Ball State’s goal this season – winning a Mid-American Conference Championship.

“To me there’s two goals that I think about a lot – one is to hang a banner in Worthen Arena, to win the overall conference championship, and the second one is to get the NCAA Tournament,” Whitford said. 

Ball State has had two consecutive 20-plus win seasons and a pair of co-MAC West Division regular season championships, falling just short of a MAC Championship appearance after losing 74-70 against No. 1 Akron last year in the semifinals.

Kiapway and Tyler discussed how the team’s culture has grown since their freshman year, when the Cardinals finished 7-23 overall, under Whitford’s direction. Kiapway said this year’s culture is “the best it’s ever been.”

“There would be nothing more to me to go out for [the seniors] and give them a championship,” Persons said. “We feel like this year it’s a realistic goal and we felt like in years past it was realistic, but we got a lot of talent and it’s about clicking at the right time and finding our stride.”

New leadership

On the court, Kiapway seems to have taken the reigns as the Cardinals vocal leader.

“I’ve just been trying to be an everyday guy and follow what Franko [House] and Bo [Calhoun] left behind,” Kiapway said. “I figured it was my time, my opportunity to try and be that vocal leader and try to lead by example.”

Kiapway, who has started in 73 out of 96 games in his career, encouraged the younger players during practice.

While Kiapway has been vocal on the court, Whitford said his three seniors “are all having an impact,” leading the team along with experienced players like Persons and junior forward Trey Moses.

A lot of that leadership stemmed from Ball State’s turnaround since its seven-win season in 2014-15.

“The culture has definitely been the best than what it was my freshman year,” Tyler said. “Coach Whitford has been preaching with us every year about building our culture and how we need to do stuff around here.”

Tough non-conference schedule

In the first 15 days of the regular season, Ball State will travel more than 7,500 miles to play six different non-conference opponents.

Five of those teams — Dayton, Oklahoma, Oregon, Stony Brook and Bucknell — have made the NCAA Tournament in the past two years. Two of which reached the Final Four.

The chunk of this year’s non-conference opponents came via ESPN’s Phil Knight Invitational, which Whitford agreed to play in June, late in the scheduling season.

“I had been communicating with ESPN for years to try and get in their platform of events, and not with success,” Whitford said. “They were looking for good mid-major teams for their Phil Knight event that would have to have this ridiculous schedule.”

In exchange for the long travel, Ball State is now on the radar for future ESPN events, an opportunity Whitford said was too hard to pass up.

Despite the early season travel, the players appeared excited for the challenge.

“Obviously it’s a great test for our team, but to us, it really doesn’t matter,” Persons said. “We’re just trying to be the best we can be each time and we don’t really care who we’re playing against.”

Freshman players roles

Four freshmen — Ishmael El-Amin, Zach Gunn, Blake Huggins and Tyler Leedy — joined the roster this year. 

Neither redshirts nor the final roster have been finalized, but several freshmen may have the chance to see action this season.

“Ishmael and Zach are the two guys really competing for roles, for significant roles right now,” Whitford said. “It’s a little bit early right now to see how that will play out, but I think both of them are good players.”

With Persons running point and Kiapway, Tyler and junior Jontrell Walker, who sat out last year due to NCAA transfer rules, competing for guard spots, it’s too early to know just how much El-Amin will play. He already seems to have garnered some respect from the upperclassmen, though.

“[Ishmael’s] doing a pretty good job at the point guard position and you know, he can be ready when his numbers called,” Tyler said.

While Ball State is deep at the guard position, two of its big men, junior center Trey Moses and sophomore forward Tahjai Teague, have dealt with minor injuries this offseason.

Teague is already back on the court and with senior Sean Sellers and sophomore Kyle Mallers running forward, Gunn's contributions have yet to be determined. 

At the center position, however, Moses has yet to return to the court. Whitford said while he’ll be healthy before the first game, he likely won’t surpass his 27.3 minutes per game average last season right away, leaving Huggins as an option early in the season.

“Since Trey is out, [Huggins] has to play a big role learning how to play the post, learning the calls and all his terms,” Tyler said. “It’s a lot for him right now, but if he can get it now, in the future, he’ll be good.”

Players to watch

While transfer players K.J. Walton and Brachen Hazen will impact Ball State in the future, there are a few returning players to keep an eye on this season.

Jontrell Walker returns as another guard option with two years of eligibility after sitting out last year. At Incarnate word, he was named the 2015 Southland Conference Freshman of the Year by College Hoops Daily, averaging 13.1 points and 1.9 assists per game in two seasons.

Kyle Mallers is another player Whitford said will likely see a bigger role this season.

“The one guy who has done really well in practice so far is Kyle Mallers,” Whitford said. “I would expect him to have a substantially more significant role this year than last … I’d say every phase of his game so far has been improved.”

The sophomore forward averaged 11.2 minutes per game last season, earning just one start in his many roles, but he’s another player to keep an eye on as the season progresses.