In college basketball, the transfer portal and NCAA eligibility rules have changed the way programs build their rosters.
When teams used to take in transfer players, they had to sit out their first year in the program. However, the NCAA announced a one-time exception rule April 28, which allowed student-athletes to transfer once without sitting a season, and unlike in the past, transfer players are given immediate eligibility if it's their first time transferring.
The Cardinals dipped their toes in the transfer portal this past offseason, adding three players from April to June.
Junior guard Tyler Cochran, senior guard Demarius Jacobs and junior forward Mickey Pearson Jr. are all first-year Cardinals. Cochran spent his first two years at Northern Illinois University and averaged 15.5 points in the 2020-21 season. Jacobs comes over from Saint Louis University, where he made 29 starts in 68 career games, while Pearson Jr. played 19 games for Texas Christian University last season.
Ball State head coach James Whitford said he noticed distinguishing traits in all three players during the recruiting process.
“It would be different for every position — if I summed it up, someone who’s really talented and someone who has high competitive character [and] someone who’s a great competitor and a great teammate.” Whitford said.
Along with their three transfers, the Cardinals return eight scholarship players from the 2020-21 season while also welcoming three freshmen: center Payton Sparks, guard Jaylin Sellers and forward Basheer Jihad.
Whitford said Ball State will stay mostly “in-house” from a leadership standpoint, and he has been impressed with having a mixture of returning players while also beginning to see his team’s newcomers find their own individual leadership styles.
“Peyton Sparks, Jaylin Sellers and Tyler, those guys all kind of really stand out to me in their own way,” Whitford said.
After a 70-69 exhibition loss against Michigan Tech Nov. 3, Ball State began the regular season Nov. 9 as they traveled to Georgia Southern University and lost 82-71 to the Eagles. The Cardinals started junior guard Luke Bumbalough, Cochran, Sellers, redshirt senior forward Miryne Thomas and Sparks.
Last season, Bumbalough and Thomas each averaged 7.3 points per game, tied for highest among returners. As the Cardinals begin a new season, Whitford said he doesn’t know what Ball State’s identity is offensively.
“I know we're going to become a good offensive team, although we're not right now,” Whitford said. “I think we're still searching for it in the offense.”
Although the offense is still in flux, Whitford said, he is optimistic about what the Cardinals are capable of becoming defensively and believes they will figure it out as the season progresses.
“I think we're still a work in progress on defense,” Whitford said, “but one of the things I believe it can become is, we're a big physical team that should be able to put you in a box and pummel you on the glass.”
Entering his third season donning the cardinal and white, Bumbalough is one of the longest-tenured Cardinals and averaged 29.1 minutes per game in 2020-21 — highest among all returners. Bumbalough said he believes the team’s freshmen and transfers have quickly acclimated to the program, and it has helped bridge the gap between newcomers and the returners on the court.
“I'd say early on, we're just really connected,” Bumbalough said. “We're not worried about stepping on each other's toes — we all trust each other. We have a whole new different team, so it's pretty cool that everyone's already so close as they are, and we're going to keep building that chemistry. I think the biggest thing is, just keep trusting each other.”
Although he missed the game-winning shot attempt at the final buzzer in the Cardinals’ exhibition game against Michigan Tech, Cochran said he remains focused on the regular season. After the game, he expressed his excitement to be in a Cardinal uniform for the first time. He then scored seven points in his Ball State debut against the Eagles.
“It felt good,” Cochran said. “It felt good to finally get out there with the guys and go out and compete at a high level. I am very excited for what is to come.”