Following Ball State’s 74-42 loss to Akron Jan. 30, head coach James Whitford compared his team’s performance to that of a game in early November as opposed to early February.
Scoring the fewest number of points in a regular season game in nearly three years, the Cardinals were without redshirt fifth-year guard K.J. Walton — the team’s leading scorer — redshirt junior forwards Miryne Thomas and Zach Gunn and sophomore guard Jalen Windham due to COVID-19 protocols, along with redshirt senior guard/forward Reggie Jones due to injury.
These absences did not help Ball State in the loss, playing its first game after a week off. But Whitford said the team’s issues didn’t necessarily stem from their recent layoff or the lack of the aforementioned players. They rather came from playing with an unusual lineup.
“The issue for us is we feel like we have a different team every game,” Whitford said. “Going a week without playing would be great if we had a whole week to focus on practice and get that team in rhythm. Even with the circumstances, we could have and should have played better today.”
Losing their third consecutive game, Whitford said the Cardinals’ struggles against the Zips all came down to a lack of one element: chemistry. Two weeks ago, following Ball State’s win over Northern Illinois, Whitford praised his players for stepping up to the occasion, but that was simply not the case after Saturday's loss.
Prior to the game, Whitford said, he read a piece surrounding the NBA’s Brooklyn Nets, focusing on how they’ve dealt with their recent shortcomings and their struggles to successfully build on-court chemistry.
“Maybe one day, you have both Kyrie [Irving] and James Harden out,” Whitford said. “It’s hard for that group to build team chemistry. We’re trying to get organized, get comfortable and build some rhythm and chemistry with our group. That’s going to sort itself out — we obviously don’t have a lot of time left — but we’re going to have to deal with that over the next couple of weeks to put ourselves in a position to play well down the stretch.”
Having a “next man up" mentality while playing amid the coronavirus has been nothing new for many teams across the country — including Ball State. However, the Cardinals struggled to do just that in Saturday’s loss. Akron outscored Ball State in points off the bench 44-7, and just one Cardinal notched double-digits in the loss, as senior guard Ishmael El-Amin scored 13 points.
“No matter who’s out there, you have to trust each other and play together as a unit,” Whitford said. “We just were making a lot forced actions very quickly. I think it was just about everyone feeling the burden that they have to carry the load — without K.J., without Miryne and playing a good team on the road.”
Whitford made it clear after Saturday’s game that he feels his team has struggled since the return of redshirt sophomore guard Jarron Coleman — more than he thought it would — who has played in four games this season after missing nearly two months due to a foot injury.
"We just need some time to get [Coleman] back, forget COVID and get comfortable playing with him," Whitford said. "The thing on top of that, the COVID challenges, it's like a perfect storm together.”
Despite the loss, Whitford credited his players for showing greater hustle in the game’s second half as opposed to the first. He said he noticed improvements in passing, which led to more high-quality opportunities.
“The ball was popping,” Whitford said. “We fell apart defensively in the last seven or eight minutes, but if you look at the number of passes and the pace of the passing…We started to move the ball much better."
Ball State returns to action Feb. 2 against Buffalo for just its third home game over the last month. Regardless of their recent adversities, Whitford believes the Cardinals have plenty of room to grow, develop and find success as the season progresses.
“I continue to believe that when we get everybody back and we have some time to play together, we will be a very dangerous team,” Whitford said. “I’ve felt that way all year, and I continue to feel that way. Obviously, we have a short clock to get there and a real sense of urgency on all of us to try to develop that rhythm, chemistry and be able to be the team that we want to be.”