By now, those who watch Ball State men’s basketball know who Kyle Mallers is.

The same couldn’t be said at this point last season, though, as his role was behind players like Franko House and Ryan Weber. In 2016-17, Mallers’ minor role for Cardinals led to him averaging just 11.2 minutes and 2.2 points per contest.

Both House and Weber, who each play professionally overseas now, were graduating. As his freshman season came to an end, Mallers knew that there was playing time to be earned. The sophomore forward worked on every facet of his game, understanding that his role was shifting from a bottom of the rotation player to a full-time starter.

“I knew I’d be a contributor this year, at least more than I contributed last year,” Mallers said. “I knew that I’d be coming into that type of role where I’d get minutes and become part of the main rotation of guys, so I just kind of locked in during the summer and I feel like so far, it’s been paying off.”

And pay off it has. Midway through his sophomore season, he's atop the team in almost every statistical category, but don’t tell him that. 

He probably won’t care.

That’s because at the end of the game, Mallers cares about whether the Cardinals win, not how he looked on the stat sheet. That winning mentality is something he's had throughout his entire career.

“Kyle has always been that guy,” head coach James Whitford said. “Whatever the team needs, he did it. In high school, in AAU and here. He’s always been a team first guy and I’ve always respected that about him.”

The transition

The drastic production increase from last year to this year may have come to a shock to the fans in the stands, but it’s been no surprise for Whitford. 

After his freshman season, Whitford saw the work Mallers put in during the offseason. Whitford expected him to get faster and more agile. He expected his shot to improve over time. He expected the drastic improvement in his ability and quickness off the dribble. 

OK, that last one might have been a little bit of a surprise. 

“He’s improved more off the dribble than I would’ve guess, then I would’ve expected him to do in a year,” Whitford said. “But I’m not surprised that he’s that much better than he was last year. … I’ve always said that Kyle is probably better than fans realize.”

As this season neared, Whitford said to look out for the rising sophomore. He knew Mallers was ready to make an impact for the team that wants to bring a Mid-American Conference banner to Muncie. And he’s been proven right so far.

Midway through his sophomore year, Mallers is averaging 26.6 minutes and 10.6 points per game, good for second highest on the team in both categories. His shooting percentages of 46 percent from the floor and 33 percent from behind the arc this season are also some of the highest on the team.

Not to mention the multitude of other things well. He’s third in the conference in free throw percentage (86.2) and second on the team in offensive rebounds (40). He’s also just one of two players who have started every game this season for the Cardinals, the other one being junior point guard Tayler Persons. 

Persons has witnessed the development of Mallers from last year to this year and said that he’s not surprised that it happened, he’s just surprised on how it happened.

“I think he took his role and ran with it,” Persons said. “I feel like he’s really found his niche with our team. He’s a tough player … This year he’s really proved that and with our style and everything, he fits perfect.”

Mallers fit in pretty well last season too, it just wasn’t as apparent.

A team player

Last season, Mallers was as a utility player of sorts, playing four different positions throughout the span of the season because as Whitford puts it, “That’s what the team needed.”

He didn’t complain though, Mallers embraced his dynamic role as a true freshman and filled in wherever – sometimes that was playing guard and other times it was manning up against the opposing teams big man. While his fluid role helped the team earn its second straight 20-win season, it didn’t necessarily help Mallers statistics on the court, especially in MAC play.

Against conference opponents, he shot just 20 percent from the field and 14 percent from 3-point range as his playing time dwindled down to under nine minutes a game by the time the team boasted another shared MAC West title with Western Michigan. Mallers says the lack of playing time didn’t discourage him because he understood his role.

“It was more of our team at the time, it just kind of worked out in a way where I didn’t get a lot of minutes,” Mallers said. “I knew it was going to be a process and I think that’s part of building a program is freshman kind of just have to take that type of role and I was comfortable doing that.”

That dynamic, team first attitude is exactly what attracted Whitford to Mallers when he saw him playing both AAU basketball and for coach Marty Beasley at Carroll High School in his hometown of Fort Wayne, Indiana. Mallers helped Carroll to a school best 23-4 record as a junior and a sectional championship in his senior season. But again, it’s not that he did it, it’s how he did. 

Beasley says that even though Mallers is two years removed from the program, high school basketball players at Carroll still call him “The best teammate they’ve been around.” Whitford recalled Mallers playing down in the post, matching up against the opposing team’s center because that’s what the Chargers needed to win. He made sure he was going to do whatever it took to do that.

“He does all the little things right,” Whitford said. “He’s a very unselfish guy. He’s a true team player and he’s also a really good player. He does all the little things right and in that respect, he’s probably as impactful as anyone on the team.” 

While he’s no longer a freshman who started just one game, he’s just as unselfish on the floor. Whether it’s scoring five points against Central Michigan or leading the way with 17 points against Eastern Michigan, Mallers finds a way to contribute.

Winning mentality

Mallers left Carroll as its all-time winningest player and as the school’s second-ever Indiana All-Star selection.

As a senior he averaged 14.5 points and six rebounds per game. While those numbers are commendable, they certainly weren’t the best among the members on the 2016 All-Star team. In fact, his per game scoring average didn’t even top the top 200 in the state that season. 

But there was something else the selection committee of IHSAA coaches and members from the IBCA saw in Mallers. For them, it wasn't that he averaged double digits every game, it was how he did it.

“You’re looking at a kid that doesn’t put up a ton of numbers because he’s not that type of kid, he wants to win,” Beasley said. “He’s going to sacrifice his individual numbers to win and we’re lucky that we live in a state that other coaches see that and they see the value that he brought to our team.”

Beasley said that Mallers could have put up better numbers in high school, but he was more focused on finding a way to get wins. Mallers led Carroll to a one of its best seasons in history and its first sectional championships in five years after playing through a pair of sub .500 records in his first two seasons.

Mallers “lived in the weightroom,” according to Beasley. After quitting baseball and football by the time he was a sophomore, Beasley knew Mallers was serious about playing in college. He just didn’t know where yet. Mallers received offers from Akron, Ball State, Central Michigan, Evansville, Indiana State, Kent State, Ole Miss and Toledo. 

A multitude of things led Mallers to making his final decision, but the fact that Ball State was beginning to win again probably didn’t hurt.

“I knew the program was headed in the right direction and I saw a lot of winning seasons ahead of us,” Mallers said. “I just felt that with it being close to Fort Wayne, knowing that we’d have a good team and that I’d be able to step in and eventually be a contributor on our team were all factors.”

Whatever the reason, Mallers is at Ball State now and it’s on pace to another 20-win season with its 12-6 start.

And for the next two years, it will likely remain that way. As long as Mallers is on the court. 

“He loves to win and he’s going to continue to develop his role with the Cardinals and with the players they have,” Beasley said. “Whatever he needs to do to be successful, he’s going to do and I would just look for him to improve every year like he has been. He did that in high school and he’s going to do that in college. He’s driven, he’s motivated, he wants to be good and he wants the Cardinals to be good.

“He loves winning.”