Under first-year head coach Michael Lewis, Ball State Men’s Basketball went 20-11, which is six games better than the 2021-22 season. It is also the first time the Cardinals won 20 games since the 2016-17 season.
But one thing Ball State has failed to do since 2000 is win the Mid-American Conference (MAC) Tournament. In 2000, Tiger Woods won his first United States Open, Tom Brady was drafted by the New England Patriots and Lakers star Kobe Bryant won his first NBA Championship.
With the rankings set, the Cardinals have the No. 4 seed in Cleveland and will face No. 5 Ohio (18-13, 10-8 MAC) Thursday at 1:30 p.m.
If Ball State wants to capitalize on an already impressive season, here are five keys to winning the tournament.
One thing that has hurt the Cardinals is the occasional slow start. In their first home loss of the season against Buffalo (15-16, 9-9 MAC), Ball State started poorly as its opponent went up 12-3 in the first few minutes.
Turnovers, missed shots and the Bulls’ capitalizing allowed the visitors to create a lead that was never contested. In fact, the Cardinals never led once in that game.
On the positive side, in their 20 wins this season, the Cardinals led at halftime in 15 of those. Whether it was by 10 or by one, Ball State went on to win those matches.
Feeding Payton Sparks
One of the biggest factors in the Cardinals’ offense is sophomore Payton Sparks. The 6 foot 9 inch Winchester, Indiana, native can drive to the basket, grab rebounds and force other teams to foul.
When he has scored more than 15 points in a game this season, Ball State went 9-2. On the flip side, the Cardinals went 11-9 when he scored less than 15 points. Ball State will look to make sure the center is getting ample time with the ball.
One concern for Sparks was his last game against Toledo (25-6, 16-2). On two separate occasions, he hit the court grabbing each ankle. Head coach Michael Lewis has not commented on his status. Fans will find out when their first tournament game on Thursday tips off.
Hitting Free Throws
As mentioned above, Sparks has no issue getting the Cardinals to the foul line. They are ranked ninth in the country in doing so. But there is one issue: hitting them.
Ball State’s free throw percentage per game was 68.6 percent this season. For how well the team flirts with the foul line, you might expect a better number.
Looking at the roster, there are some Cardinals that have success from the line. Redshirt junior Jarron Coleman and sophomore Jaylin Sellers are both over 75 percent and senior Damarius Jacobs leads the team with 82.7 percent.
Going into the tournament, Ball State should stay with the game plan and be aggressive inside the paint. But the Cardinals must ensure they can walk away with the points.
Cutting out easy mistakes
If you went to a Ball State game this season, you probably heard Lewis letting his Cardinals know what he thought of a play or decision. But when the team made easy mistakes, he was very vocal.
After losing their last home game, he voiced that ‘my bad’ plays will send them home. And looking at the Cardinals’ issues in the turnover department, he is not wrong.
In five games this season, Ball State had more than 15 turnovers, finishing those games with only two wins. Now some might say that that’s not a lot of games with a high number of turnovers. But this is March. Lewis’s comments about mistakes are in full force and are areas that the Cardinals should avoid.
Shrug off the three-game skid
Ball State did not finish the regular season on a strong note, going winless in its last three games. That included their final home game against Toledo, which gave the Rockets the regular season championship and the No. 1 seed.
One of the other losses was to Akron (21-10, 13-5), the No. 3 seed and a team that I believe has a shot to win the tournament. The Cardinals need to get past the bad run of form and stick to what got them to a 20-win season.
If Ball State can focus on these five keys, it can make a run and take home the MAC Championship.