Variety stands a common theme for Ball State Men’s Basketball in the early season. In practice and under the lights of Worthen Arena, there is a mix of talent and competition playing into the Cardinals’ 2019-20 season.

Kicking off practice in late September, the team has been focused on the variations of play it might face this season. Man offense, zone offense, press offense, zone defense and man defense are a few of the styles head coach James Whitford has experimented with in the preseason.  

“The biggest thing for us right now is just getting ready for all the different styles of play that we'll see during the course of the year,” Whitford said. “We’re just getting our system in and getting really good at it.” 

In their first two weeks of play, the Cardinals will face a variation of talent and style on the road and at home. Ball State opens the season Tuesday against Division III Defiance before traveling to Evansville Nov. 9, a team that both lost to and defeated the Cardinals last season. Week two presents more mid-major madness, as the Cardinals take on Illinois-Chicago and Indiana State. 

“It's a very hard schedule to start with,” Whitford said. “We start off with Defiance, and then we go to Evansville, a place we lost last year. Then we play UIC, who is returning all of its players from a decent team last season. Then we play Indiana State in Indianapolis, and we don’t come home for a while after that. We’ll be tested for sure.” 

Games aside, there are a few kinks in the system the team is working out before tipoff Tuesday. One thing that has been emphasized in practice and caught the attention of the team in the offseason is rebounding. Specifically, Ball State was outrebounded in a narrow 68-65 win over the University of Ottawa in Costa Rica.

Redshirt senior K. J. Walton warms up before basketball practice Oct. 29, in the Dr. Don Shondell Practice Center. This is Walton’s second season playing for Ball State after transferring from Missouri where he played 63 games. Eric Pritchett, DN

“That's been one of our Achilles’ heels thus far that we had to get better at,” Whitford said. “I haven’t really been worried about it, but I’m surprised it’s been an issue for us. However, at the same time, we’re playing more open this season and have more players outside the 3-point line than a year ago. But it’s still something we have to be better at for sure.” 

From a team perspective, the lack of boards comes from an effort perspective. Redshirt senior guard K.J. Walton said the team needs to show it wants to get those rebounds a little more. 

“I think it's just kind of effort and, you know, who wants it more?” Walton said. “I think that's an easy fix.” 

In addition to rebounding, many teammates have focused on improving their individual game. Senior forward Kyle Mallers is looking to get more confidence behind his shot after spotty shooting last season. Mallers saw his field goal percentage drop by nine points and his 3-point percentage down three percent from 2018 to 2019. 

“I think just overall I have been working hard for a lot of the offseason on pretty much everything,” Mallers said. “Recently, I've been confident with my shot. I had a couple good scrimmages, shot the ball well and in practice been shooting well. Personally, I feel like I’m in a good place.” 

Alongside the eight returning players, the Cardinals will bring three redshirts off the bench in freshmen Kani Acree and Jarron Coleman and sophomore Miryne Thomas. Coleman was the only one out of the three who saw any playing time last season. In an exhibition match against UIndy, he recorded nine points, four assists, three rebounds and two steals.  

“They each bring different things,” Whitford said. “Jarron Coleman is a really good playmaker. Miryne Thomas brings athleticism and energy. Kani Acree is a really versatile player. Each one brings different qualities, but collectively, they all have talent.” 

Freshman Luke Bumbalough prepares for practice in the Dr. Don Shondell Practice Center with long range shots Oct. 29. Bumbalough finished his basketball career at New Castle High School as the second highest scorer in school history with 1,717 points. Eric Pritchett, DN

To mirror the three redshirts coming off the bench, three freshman will take the court for Ball State in Luke Bumbalough, Lucas Kroft and Ben Hendricks. As playing time is competitive on the roster, the small freshman class is doing as much as it can to help out. 

“I just want to help the team in any way to win,” Bumbalough said. “That's just by playing hard ball, hard defense, yelling loud, just doing the little things. All the freshmen are doing their own thing and trying to stick out in some way. I feel like I was doing pretty well.” 

A variety of experience, style of play and familiarity all play into the extensive depth of Ball State’s roster this season. When asked if Whitford had a starting five in mind, Whitford replied with a firm “No.” However, he believes all five spots are up for grabs based on his team’s depth. 

“I think our guys would tell you we have a lot of depth,” Whitford said. “The young guys are young, and they make freshman mistakes, and in Miryne’s case, sophomore mistakes, but it's a talented group. That stands out.” 

Contact Jack Williams with comments at jgwilliams@bsu.edu or on Twitter @jackgwilliams