Ball State looks like a completely different team compared to the beginning of the season, and that's not necessarily a bad thing.
In the midst of a three-game winning streak, including victories in five of their last six games, the Cardinals are attacking the glass more than ever and it's paying off. Wins are starting to string together for Ball State (17-9, 8-5 MAC) who currently sits alone at third place in the Mid-American Conference.
So what's the difference? The Cardinals are a bigger than ever — utilizing Trey Moses at the 5, Tahjai Teague at the 4 and Kyle Mallers at the 3 — and they're starting to figure out how to take full advantage of that.
"We're a lot bigger and it's about those guys relentlessly crashing and making [other teams] pay a price," head coach James Whitford said.
And pay a price they have. In the previous six games, Ball State has outrebounded opponents by nearly seven rebounds a game, including the dominating +19 performance against Akron on the road.
At the beginning of the season, the Cardinals defined themselves as a "3-point shooting team." That's when players like Jeremie Tyler and Jontrell Walker were on the roster, combined with Tayler Persons, Sean Sellers, Francis Kiapway and Mallers, it was easy to believe that this would be a deep shooting team.
With two players off the team and Kiapway struggling to shoot, Ball State isn't that team anymore. But sitting at eighth in the conference in 3-point field goal percentage as a team, and showing no sign of rising from that spot, probably doesn't bother the Cardinals.
"Everyone knows their roles, they're defined at this point and its based on us being confident and trusting each other," Sellers said. "I think that's big and something that we've handled the past couple games."
Four players are averaging more than 10 points per game, including Tayler Persons who leads the way with 14.7. A majority of those points are coming from inside the arc, though.
Prior to its travel to Akron, Ohio, Ball State was practicing getting the ball inside more. Getting the ball to 6-foot-8 Teague and 6-foot-9 Moses is allowing the Cardinals to score more — they've both put up 20-plus points each of the last two games — and its resulted in nights like those against Akron and Kent State where Ball State had 40 and 50 points in the paint, respectively.
Getting the ball down low has its obvious benefits, raising team field goal percentage and giving an offense a greater chance to pull in rebounds on that end of the floor, but it's proven to have some other benefits for the Cardinals as well, opening up shots for guys like Mallers, Sellers and even sophomore Josh Thompson when needed.
"We have to be able to get the ball inside," Whitford said. "We're a big, physical team, we have to make sure we can get the ball inside to Trey and Tahjai. It helps everybody, opens up the outside, too."
Moving forward, things don't get easier for Ball State, who plays Toledo (19-7, 11-2 MAC), Northern Illinois (11-5, 4-9 MAC) and Western Michigan (15-11, 7-6 MAC). All teams in the West Division, all trying to separate themselves before the MAC Tournament begins.
Ball State, however, is playing some of its best basketball all year and that fact hasn't gone unnoticed by the players.
"We're coming together as a team and everybody is trying to share the ball," Teague said. "When we're all in there as a team, to me, I feel like we're the best team in the conference."