The second half of the season for Mid-American Conference teams is unlike the first.
Some teams choose to challenge themselves November through December, such as Akron, who had the 137th hardest schedule in the country, playing the likes of Louisville and West Virginia. Other schools take the time to rack up some large margin wins, like Eastern Michigan, who blew out Goshen and Siena Heights in the early season.
However, when it comes to MAC play, the records reset, and everyone is on the same playing field. Anyone can win on any given night in any arena. It’s not about racking up the points or losing by wide margins. It’s about surviving to get to the top.
For the Cardinals, staying consistent is what they believe will get them to where they need to be. Ball State entered conference play last season with a 9-4 record but slumped in its final 18 games to finish 11th heading into the conference tournament.
“It’s consistency over 18 games that’s important,” head coach James Whitford said. “No one game is going to make or break you. It’s the team that’s going to have that consistency over 18 games that is going to have the best chance to win the league.”
Last season, that was the case. Buffalo only lost two games in MAC play and eventually went on to win the conference title. Even runner-up Bowling Green only dropped six of its last 18.
Consistency has not just been a key for the team’s collective success but individual success as well. Junior guard Ishmael El-Amin said he contributes his strong offensive performance this season to his ability to stay consistent through each game. The guard is averaging 14.4 points per game and hit a career-high 24 points against Loyola Chicago.
“My consistent play has just continued all season long, and I’m fortunate enough to be in a position to score,” El-Amin said. “I’m just knocking down shots, and I’m being efficient with the shots that I do take.”
While El-Amin has proven himself as an offensive force for the Cardinals, redshirt senior forward Tahjai Teague has spread his production throughout the stat sheet, showing he’s a player who can create and finish plays.
Twice this season, Teague recorded five or more assists, six in the upset win over Georgia Tech, and broke into double digits four times in rebounding. Whitford said his impact may not be seen on the stat sheet defensively, but it’s felt on the court.
“Tahj is highly undervalued as an all-around player,” Whitford said. “Against Toledo, I thought he dominated with his defensive deflections, his ability to guard Luke Knapke and his rebounding. To me, he’s having a first-team-all-conference-caliber year right now. Sometimes that’s six points, and sometimes that’s 20 points.”
Teague proved Whitford’s comment right in the team’s 88-68 win over Buffalo, where he knocked down 25 points and grabbed nine boards, both team highs. Teague commends his team’s defensive performance, which has allowed him to find success on offense this season.
“I’m trying not to play through my offense but just take what the defense is giving me,” Teague said. “I couldn’t make any shots against Toledo, but I felt like I played really good defense.”
In his fifth and final season with the Cardinals, Teague said he believes the key to success in the second half of the season is to take each game one at a time. In his time at Ball State, he has seen the Cardinals win a share of MAC West Titles, earn back-to-back bids to the College Insiders Tournament and punch three tickets to play in the MAC Tournament in Cleveland.
“You just need to do what you do extremely well and just tighten up on the little things,” Teague said. “You just got to take it one day at a time.”
Ball State did get a taste of MAC-like games in the non-conference season, playing competitive mid-major games against Northern Kentucky, Evansville, Indiana State, Western Illinois, and UTEP. All five of those games were decided by fewer than 10 points.
“We had a very tough non-conference schedule, so we were in that boat quite a bit,” Whitford said. “I think that experience is good to learn from.”
As the Cardinals sit at 2-0 after playing against two of the top teams in the conference, they know they still have a long road ahead of them. Akron, their opponent Friday, lost to No. 13 Louisville by only six. After that, Ball State will face Eastern Michigan. While the Eagles are 0-2, they narrowly lost to Ohio Tuesday.
It’s a brand new season, and the team knows if it sticks to what it knows best and remains consistent with that, there could be a MAC Championship on the horizon.
“Success is just keeping on doing what we’re doing,” Teague said. “Just don’t play out of ourselves, just keep playing for each other like we have been, and we’ll be fine.”