In 2020, every men’s basketball conference tournament was cut short. For Ball State, a potential eighth Mid-American Conference (MAC) Championship was taken away.
After finishing the season 18-13 and 11-7 in MAC play, the Cardinals were the No. 3 seed in the tournament with a first-round bye, and were looking like contenders.
This season, Ball State is back in the tournament playing at a high level. The only two players who were on that 2020 roster that are still on the team? Senior Luke Bumbalough and redshirt junior Jarron Coleman.
Coleman said the Cardinals knew what their season would look like then, and now it’s time to finish the mission.
“It's a good feeling knowing that we've got a great chance to win it all. We all know what we can do and we've been saying it all year,” he said. “We expected this, we probably think we should have won more games than we did, but it's all learning at this point, so we're just trying to put it all together and finish how we want it to.”
Ball State will be playing under the bright lights of Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse, but it’s not their first time in an NBA arena this season. In December, Ball State defeated Illinois State at Gainbridge Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.
Coleman feels that teams play with more heart and effort on professional floors, and the MAC is no exception.
“It's a great experience, it's fun. It gives you the vibe of what the next level feels like,” he said. “[I] feel like you try to play more seriously, but it's always fun playing in the NBA venues to get the experience.”
In the second round of the 2020 MAC tournament, the Cardinals were prepared to take on No. 6 seed Kent State, a team they defeated on the road by eight earlier in the season. Had they won, the Cardinals could’ve taken on Bowling Green, who they lost to by just six in the regular season, in the semi-finals.
For Coleman, regular season games hold weight, but in the postseason, teams become a different animal.
“In the conference tournament, the best dog is gonna win that day, so you've gotta give it your all each game because it's do or die at that point,” he said. “It's high intensity, [and] it's a great environment with all the teams being around.”
However, he believes the Cardinals have played to their potential this season and will take the experiences into Cleveland.
“We all know our strengths and what we have, but the games we've played and the people we've beat shows us that we can play with anybody,” Coleman said. “We walk in with confidence in any game going into this tournament.”
In 2020, Coleman was a freshman, but not just any freshman. He was the MAC Freshman of the Year that season and was prepared to continue his successful season going into the tournament.
In 2023, Coleman is essentially the leader of the Cardinals in scoring (14.5 ppg) as well as being the vocal leader.
“I just try to make sure everybody stays focused and knows that every detail matters [going] into these games because more times than not, it's going to be a few possession game,” he said. “We've got to make sure we stay focused and execute the plan every game because one mistake is [going to] send us home.”
The Cardinals first game is set to tip-off March 9 around 1:30 p.m, taking on Ohio in the first round of the tournament.