NOTE: You can watch Friday's quarterfinals matchup on CBS Sports Network.
Through the highs and lows of Ball State's 2017-18 season, the men's basketball team has been focused on one thing -- the Mid-American Conference tournament.
Each game, practice or function the team had, they discussed March and being prepared to step up then. Well, there's no more looking ahead, the time is here.
No. 4 Ball State (19-12, 10-8 MAC) takes on No. 5 Kent State (16-16, 9-9 MAC) in the quarterfinals at Quicken Loans Arena. The two split a pair of regular season matchups, with each team coming out on top at home. Kent State secured an 88-80 overtime win on Jan. 23 and Ball State dominated with an 87-68 victory on Feb. 9.
On a three-game skid coming into the tournament, here's what the Cardinals have to do in order to advance to a semifinal round against the winner of No. 12 Central Michigan and No. 1 Buffalo.
1) Utilize its big men
The clear difference between Ball State's 19-point victory and eight-point loss against Kent State came down to the performance of the Cardinals paint presence, led by the combination of Trey Moses and Tahjai Teague.
In the second matchup, the pair combined for 42 points and helped Ball State to a dominating 50 points in the paint. In that game, the two not only played well but they were accurate, shooting over 77 percent from the floor.
“I haven’t coached many teams that get 50 points in the paint, for starters,” head coach James Whitford said after that victory. “That’s an incredible number. And then, when you say Trey and Tahjai went 17-22 from the floor, I mean, wow. That’s hard to do.”
In the first game, the pair went 8-21 from the floor, scoring a combined 21 points in the overtime defeat. While Moses and Teague aren't to blame for the loss, it's hard to argue that when they play better, Ball State plays better. This season, Teague's averaging 14.7 points per game and Moses is right behind with 12.5.
During the Cardinals three-game skid, the team has been outscored in the paint. Even though opponents hold only a slight advantage, Ball State has become more reliant on its big men after losing a pair of guards in the regular season.
In the past 11 games, Teague is averaging 16 points and 8.8 rebounds per game. Moses, on the other hand, was selected Third Team All-MAC for his efforts this season.
Getting the big men involved will be vital for Ball State's success.
2) Start strong, stay consistent
As the season's progressed, Ball State got out of its win by a lot, lose by a lot mentality. That is, until its 24 point loss to Central Michigan a week ago.
Riding its longest losing streak of the season, the Cardinals will need to come out strong and stay strong consistent against the Golden Flashes. When Kent State beat Ball State the first time around, Whitford had the team going through a roster adjustment with Kyle Mallers playing the three and Teague playing the four.
The unfamiliar offense led to a streaky scoring effort that Kent State took advantage of, going on a 10-0 overtime run to pull of the victory. Since then, Ball State's seemed to be able to adjust, going on a five-game tear before suffering three straight losses.
In that postgame interview, Whitford said, "I thought our guys really competed and I told our team that it's about us becoming the best team we can by March."
Ball State had every chance to win that game four weeks ago, but if it wants to advance it's going to have to do more than just compete, it's going to have to come out strong and keep a steady stream of scoring throughout the game. One of the recurrences in the Cardinals losses has been digging a whole with stretches of unanswered points given up to opponents.
3) Don't rely on a buzzer beater
By now, most people know that Tayler Persons can hit a shot at the end of regulation but in the first round of the MAC Tournament, the Golden Flashes proved that they could too.
Kent State beat Northern Illinois, a team it lost to in the regular season, on a game-winning shot from senior Kevin Zabo, who banked in a layup as time expired.
In the MAC Tournament, anything can happen and Kent State is a team that knows a thing or two about winning. Last season, the Golden Flashes won the tournament in order to advance to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2008.
In the past 16 games between the two teams, Kent State has won 15 of them. Both Ball State and Kent State have a junior-heavy lineup and have proven to be formidable foes in the conference this season. With Kent State struggling in February and Ball State dropping its last three games, however, it's going to come down to consistency at Quicken Loans Arena.
Or a last-second shot, one that neither team wants to be on the losing end of.