Just more than a week ago, the Cardinals had lost their third straight game and scored just 42 points — their lowest in a regular season game since February 2018. Following the loss, head coach James Whitford emphasized he felt the team had struggled since the return of redshirt sophomore guard Jarron Coleman, who made his season debut Jan. 16 against Northern Illinois.
Three days later, Ball State fell to Buffalo, but Coleman scored 11 points — his first time reaching double-digits all season — while adding eight rebounds.
Saturday against the Mid-American Conference-leading Toledo Rockets, Coleman finished with a team-high 19 points and added nine rebounds, helping Ball State snap out of its four-game losing streak. But, despite the redshirt sophomore guard’s progress, Whitford knows he still remains a long way from unleashing his full potential.
“He’s not where he’s capable of being, and he knows it,” Whitford said. “He’s got to have a really good three weeks to get himself where he can be and get us where we can be going into the conference tournament.”
For Whitford, though, he still saw something special in Coleman’s performance Saturday afternoon. Praising his contributions on both sides of the ball, he said Saturday’s game marked a good indicator of what Coleman is capable of — even if he isn’t completely there yet. Whitford also emphasized the importance of his progress in practices, which he said has slowly started showing come gameplay.
“It’s not easy when you feel like a good player out there, and you know you’re a lot better than you’re showing and psychologically,” Whitford said. “I think when you’re grown, and you’re a coach, you want to say, ‘Hey, that’s part of it.’ You deal with it, keep grinding, but when you’re 19, 20, 21 years old, it’s frustrating.”
Down 21-8 midway through the first half, the Cardinals’ offensive woes were showing, resembling their performance against the Zips. Off a pass from redshirt sophomore guard/forward Kani Acree, Coleman then notched a 3-pointer — his first of three on the day. A minute later, he followed that up with an offensive rebound and a dunk. While game officials then gave him a technical foul, that didn’t stop he and his teammates from battling back and overcoming what was once a 16-point deficit.
For Coleman, anchoring the Cardinals’ comeback Saturday all began with improved communication with his teammates. He said it was the No. 1 factor that led to the Rockets coming out of the gate early, which changed after his coach called a couple first-half timeouts.
“I just tell people when they have to hold responsibilities, and when they’re supposed to be in the gap, when they need to pick up the ball,” Coleman said. “At the beginning of the game, we were down big, and our communication was terrible. That resulted in the run [Toledo] had, and we picked it up, and we just found it.”
During Ball State’s early timeouts, Whitford said, he stressed the importance of not only better communication but improved transition defense — an area the Rockets took advantage of before the Cardinals’ run.
“They did a really good job of holding each other accountable and trying to correct,” Whitford said. “I think that’s credit to our leadership — that’s a credit to Ish, that’s a credit to Blake Huggins, that’s a credit to Brachen Hazen. You could see the chemistry within them, it wasn’t like, ‘Hey, coach is yelling at me, and I’m hanging my head and pouting.’ Those guys addressed quickly what we weren’t doing right, and they responded.”
Coleman’s second half began with a layup, and he followed that up with a half-court pass to sophomore guard Luke Bumbalough, who sailed a 3-pointer. Showing no mercy, the Rockets quickly came back and tied the game at 51 before the Cardinals went on a 30-16 run and won the game.
Coleman said he knew all along the Cardinals were capable of having games like Saturday’s, despite their recent shortcomings. He said it all boiled down to grit and the desire to ultimately win.
“We knew we weren’t a bad team,” Coleman said. “We just had to make some adjustments and get our fight back — we weren’t playing as hard as we should’ve been. We had to be the hardest-playing team, and if we’re the hardest-playing team, we have a chance to win any game.”
Whitford said he’s specifically noticed two areas where Coleman has gradually improved: his decision-making and passing.
“He did a really good job on offense tonight, he made shots, he’s big and physical and yet, he needs to continue to get his quickness right and do the things to be a better defender and be able to give us a little more pace in transition,” Whitford said. “But he’s come a long way in the last three weeks, and we expect him to come even further in the [next] three.”
With a little more than a month until the MAC Tournament in Cleveland, Coleman is taking Saturday’s win with a grain of salt, expressing it was just the beginning of what the Cardinals can accomplish down the stretch.
“[Toledo] was the No. 1 team,” Coleman said. “They were hot, and they came into our crib and we handled business…There’s nothing special about beating them, [and] we’re happy with the win.”
Ball State faces Central Michigan Feb. 9 at 7 p.m.