Ball State is contender for an eighth MAC championship under first-year head coach Michael Lewis

Ball State Men's Basketball Head Coach Michael Lewis paces the sidelines in a game against Kent State Feb. 21 at Worthen Arena. Ball State defeated Kent State 82-70. Eli Pierson, DN
Ball State Men's Basketball Head Coach Michael Lewis paces the sidelines in a game against Kent State Feb. 21 at Worthen Arena. Ball State defeated Kent State 82-70. Eli Pierson, DN

As a young basketball player in Indiana, Michael Lewis grew up seeing Ball State Men’s Basketball win the Mid-American Conference (MAC) championship. After 23 years, he has them positioned to do it again.

This season, the Cardinals won their 20th game Feb. 21 in a highly anticipated matchup with Kent State, who was first in the conference at the time. It is the first 20-win season in the last six. With victories over Toledo and Akron, who currently sit first and third in MAC standings respectively, Lewis’ squad is looking to make waves in the conference tournament.

“I think as we head into Cleveland, this just reminds these guys that on any given night we can compete with anybody in this league, and you just gotta go string it together for three days,” Lewis said. 

Succeeding a 14-win season, Lewis’ first year as a head coach following nearly 20 years as an assistant, he has Ball State sitting fourth in the conference and contending for a title. 

While it hasn’t been all sunshine and rainbows, he believes this team is headed in the right direction and doing all the right things.

“I'm not sure many people would think we would be here right now. So maybe we're ahead of schedule, but I just keep the big picture in mind where I want this program to go, and I don't have a timeline for how quickly I want us to get there,” Lewis said. “It's not easy being a good team … There's a great deal of responsibility to being a good player and a good team. That's why there's not many of them.”

Although the Cardinals have experienced quick success under Lewis, he wants it to be known that his plans for the program are not anywhere near short-term. 

“It's good to see the improvement, but I don't think anybody in our program is sitting here patting himself on the back like we've arrived, we haven't done it yet,” he said. “But I like the direction in which we're moving. I think we're building the key pieces to what it takes to be competitive. I think we're doing it with the right guys in the program.”

Prior to Ball State, Lewis was an assistant coach under Mick Cronin at blue-blood UCLA for three years. From 2019-22, the Bruins were 68-29, advanced to the Sweet Sixteen twice and the Final Four once. 

In addition to Cronin, Lewis coached under Brad Stevens, current president of basketball operations for the Boston Celtics, and played for and coached under Hall of Fame Indiana head coach Bob Knight. However, he remains his own person and his own coach, setting an example for the Cardinals.

“I think you take a little bit from everybody, but I don't try to be any one of those particular people,” Lewis said. “I just try to be who I am and true to myself while using the things that I've picked up from each one of those guys and my experiences, both as a player and coaching for 18 years.” 

Ball State Men's Basketball Head Coach Michael Lewis (left) talks to redshirt-junior guard Jarron Coleman (right) from the sidelines in a game against Kent State Feb. 21 at Worthen Arena. Ball State defeated Kent State 82-70. Amber Pietz, DN

He believes coaches in fact learn more from their players than the other way around. Using his own personal experiences and stories has helped him relate to the team and guide them toward success on and off the court. 

Redshirt junior Jarron Coleman explained that Lewis is a very knowledgeable and capable coach who has put in many years to the game of basketball, and that experience is going to help guide them through March. 

“He's been around the game a lot. You can tell the way he coaches [that he's] been around winning, so he knows what it takes to win games and especially around this time,” Coleman said. “[He's] coming from UCLA, a school that went to the Final Four. So he knows how to win games and he's bringing that experience to us trying to win this MAC tournament.”

Lewis has a plethora of experience to give to this team, as his life has been dominated by basketball from a young age. With his father being a head coach, he had access to the ins and outs of the game. He would go to practices, tag along with his father to scout opposing teams and just be around. 

It got to a point where instead of getting on the bus to go home after elementary school, he would ask to be dropped off at the high school for their practice. This led to his advanced knowledge of the game. It was at Indiana University where Lewis felt his basketball future was solidified. 

“I've been very fortunate to be able to turn something that I love into a career. I was a scorer in high school and then kind of changed my game at Indiana,” he said. “I think that's really where I started to see the game through a different lens and started to understand, conceptually, the game in a different way, schematically and different things.”

At Indiana, Lewis was a floor general and passer, amassing 545 assists and graduating as the all-time leader, a record held until 2016 when guard Yogi Ferrell surpassed him. There, he was also famous for standing up to Bob Knight, after Knight yelled angrily in his face. 

This fiery spirit never left Lewis, and he said he knew then that he wanted to be a coach due to his love for the game. 

“I kind of got that [coaching] bug when I was in college because I knew I wanted to be involved with basketball, and I've always valued the impact of the coaches that I've had, what they've had on me and wanting to have that type of impact on the guys that I hoped to coach,” he said. “I can remember the exact day that I told Coach Knight I wanted to coach and his reaction, [and] I knew that I wanted to [continue to] be a part of basketball and my route to do that was through coaching.”

At the beginning of the season, there were only two reporters at the first post-game press conference, both from The Daily News. Fast forward to Feb. 21, there were seven, including news outlets from Indianapolis. 

Lewis believes this change in media turnout comes from a successful team, but they are not the only factor.  It takes administrators around campus and within the athletic department as well as marketing, tickets, sports information, students, boosters, casual fans and the community.

“It can't just be a basketball team. Obviously, we're an integral part of it, but it takes everybody to build the type of program that we're setting out to build,” he said. “It takes everybody to get it started. It's been exciting to see some of that growth. We're just trying to create an atmosphere that is fun, where people want to be a part of it.” 

A fun atmosphere is exactly what this team has created, generating the largest crowds Worthen Arena has seen in years. On Feb. 3, there were 6,068 fans watching the Cardinals as they defeated Eastern Michigan in an overtime thriller, and on Feb. 21 ‘The Nest’ had its largest attendance in 14 years.

Sophomore center Payton Sparks goes for a basket in a game against Kent State Feb. 21 at Worthen Arena. Sparks had 12 rebounds during the game. Eli Pierson, DN

The self-proclaimed party-planner of Ball State is a large reason for a surge in attendance for not only his coaching, but his “nest vouchers,”, slips given to students valid for a free hot dog, pizza or either a soft drink or beer, have convinced students to come for the free stuff, and stay for a good basketball game. 

“I think for the most part, we've done our job as a basketball team and put out a good product. When you put out a product that people are excited to watch, if you just put an effort and play hard and compete, fans will respect that,” Lewis said. “It's been good to see the students get behind it, the community coming out in support, and we just got to continue to build that. I'll give away as much free stuff as I possibly can and I'll get better at my party planning skills, I promise.”

Basketball in the state of Indiana has always been an important and cultivating phenomenon, with many using the term ‘it just means more in Indiana, and it drives coach Lewis and the team to be better. 

“I think that's why our team has kind of gained some excitement, It's because the people of Indiana understand what good basketball is,” he said. “They grow up with it, they crave it. I think that's part of why this job attracted me is because I knew if we can play basketball the right way, we could create an atmosphere here that is special.”

Three key players of this Ball State squad, sophomores: guard Jaylin Sellers (13.8 ppg), center Payton Sparks (12.8 ppg) and Basheer Jihad (6.6 ppg) all entered the NCAA transfer portal last season. 

Along with redshirt junior Jarron Coleman (14.7 ppg), Lewis was able to bring them all back, a big recruiting win since all four of these players see the court for most of the game, and all contribute heavily to team success. 

“Bringing those three guys back and getting them out of the portal were huge recruiting wins for us … especially [with] those sophomores being young, they can kind of provide a basic core of a program that you want to build around,” he said. “[Coleman] transferring back to Ball State [was important]. He's a really talented player, and his growth as a leader and player has contributed to our success.”

The Cardinals are a team with four different players averaging points in double-figures. Senior guard Luke Bumbalough believes everyone has put their trust into the team and its system at the right time.

“Everyone's just bought in. When one guy does it, it trickles down. So I feel like there's no exception not to buy when everyone's doing it, we just want to win.” Bumbalough said. 

Through all the ups and downs, coaching remains the same for Lewis. A pleasure and not a burden. 

“What makes coaching cool is that the day this becomes a job, I don't know what I'll do, but I'll go do something else. This is not a job to me,” he said. “At the end of the day, it's a game played by kids. We get to use it to try to use it to get these guys better and better prepared for life because life's not easy. Life is hard, you're gonna deal with adversity, disappointments … but I couldn't imagine doing anything else.”

For Michael Lewis, being back home in Indiana as a head coach has been a dream come true, but he knows the work is not finished. The Cardinals still have one game left on their schedule, taking on another MAC contender in Toledo. 

In the past few games, three Cardinals have been banged up with injuries; Pearson missed a game with a lower leg injury, Sparks missed a game with a wrist injury and Coleman missed a game with a foot injury. While Lewis has shown a little concern for the timing of these wounds, he and the Cardinals remain prepared for the MAC tournament in Cleveland.

In Cleveland, the team’s biggest point of emphasis will be to remain consistent and efficient on both sides of the ball at all times. 

Additionally, they’ll need to clean up the free throw shooting. While they are third in the country at getting to the line, shooting 24.8 free throws per game, they are 297th in percentage, making 67.8 percent of them.

However, they are still MAC title contenders who have an impressive resume, defeating the other contending teams in Akron, Toledo and Kent State this season. 

The Cardinals look to leave Cleveland with their eighth conference title and first in 23 long years.

Contact Derran Cobb with comments at or on Twitter @Derran_cobb.


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