This time last year, there was a different sense of hope for the Mid-American Conference and Ball State Men’s Basketball.
As the MAC Tournament was getting underway approximately a year ago, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic. The women had already completed their first round, but the state of the rest of their tournament, as well as the entirety of the men’s, was in question. Neither happened.
While there has been a similar sense of uncertainty this season — as Ball State had three games canceled this season due to coronavirus concerns — this year’s tournament will take place as scheduled March 11-13 in Cleveland.
Ball State (10-12, 8-9 MAC) enters the tournament as the No. 8 seed and will take on No. 1 Toledo (20-7, 15-4 MAC) in what is, essentially, a rubber match between both teams. The Cardinals split the season series with the Rockets, as Ball State took the first meeting at home in February before the Rockets took the regular season finale March 5.
After missing opportunities last season, the goal of bringing home the hardware has remained the same. Senior guard Ishmael El-Amin said not being able to play a year ago left a bad taste in the players’ mouths.
“We want to win the MAC Championship,” El-Amin said. “That’s evident, especially coming off of the year we had last year, and not being able to go in and play a game hurts. I wouldn’t say championship or bust, but it is the main goal of the team.”
El-Amin believes the Cardinals’ defense needs to improve if they are going to beat Toledo. The Rockets shot 50 percent from the field and 45 percent from three in the last meeting between both teams.
“We have to defend,” El-Amin said. “We have to limit their second-chance points at the basket. We have to be mentally tough. We were going back and forth with our [mentality] in the loss. We have to be ready for a dogfight — we see it is going to be one.”
Head coach James Whitford stressed the importance of putting together a complete game heading into the rubber match between both teams. In the first game against Toledo, Ball State’s defense held the Rockets to shooting 32 percent from the field and 21 percent from three.
El-Amin said this season’s quarterfinal game between the two teams will be reminiscent of what the series has entailed the past few years.
“We have always liked that matchup against Toledo,” El-Amin said. “We have had great games against each other. Having them again on Thursday, and both of us knowing we are 1-1, it is going to be an intense game. It is going to be a fun one. It will be who can put 40 minutes together first.”
The Cardinals have recently succeeded against Toledo, as they have won eight of the last 11 meetings against the Rockets. March 11 will be the 100th time the two teams have played against each other, and it has been as even a matchup as you can get, as Ball State leads the series 50-49.
“Toledo and Ball State has been a rivalry for years,” Whitford said. “In the MAC West, that has been the battle for the better part of five years … It is always a war, and I have no question that it will be again.”
While the game is a No. 8 seed against a No. 1 seed, the Cardinals feel the standings don’t reflect how far they can advance.
“We feel like we are better than what the record and what the seed shows,” Whitford said. “I don’t think, at this stage, that really matters. We had three games canceled against the bottom three teams in the league.”
Whitford said he believes anything can happen in the MAC, and Thursday’s game is a prime example.
“When you are in the Mid-American Conference, you know how good the conference tournament is,” Whitford said. “That is always true, and I think it is even more true this year.”