Derran Cobb is a second-year Journalism – News major and writes for The Daily News. His views do not necessarily reflect those of the newspaper.
New coach. Record attendance. Most wins in six seasons. Four All-Mid-American Conference (MAC) Team players.
Just a few highlights of the Ball State Men’s Basketball (20-12, 11-7 MAC) teams’ 2022-23 season.
In March 2022, the Cardinals were defeated in the MAC tournament, and a few weeks later, head coach Michael Lewis was hired after previous head coach James Whitford was fired.
Lewis was able to return four players, who all made a significant impact on the team's success. Three of them were from the NCAA’s transfer portal, all sophomores: All-MAC Second Team member Payton Sparks (13.3 ppg, 8.7 rebs), All-MAC Third Team member Jaylin Sellers (13.7 ppg, 45 percent 3PT), and Basheer Jihad (7.1 ppg, 3.6 rebs).
The other player to return was redshirt junior Jarron 'Boogie' Coleman, who was named to the All-MAC Second Team after leading the team with 14.7 points per game to go with 3.6 assists and 3.5 rebounds per game.
As someone who witnessed last season and the years prior, this team had a completely different look. The culture was successfully changed, thanks to Lewis and his roster for buying into a new system. It was evident from the beginning, following a 70-point victory over Earlham College in the opening exhibition game of the season.
The team just looked different. They played harder, played better defense and moved the ball efficiently and effectively. After a few games up and down, going 3-4 in their first seven games (two of those losses were to buzzer-beaters) the Cardinals went on a seven-game win streak.
During this stretch, Ball State shot efficiently from the field, going 177-374 (47 percent). This came from fruitful ball movement, dishing 125 assists. A balanced attack saw four players average double-figure points this season; Coleman, Sparks, Sellers and All-MAC Defensive Team member Demarius Jacobs (12.3 ppg, 3.7 rebs).
I thought the team's defense took a huge step this season, allowing fewer points than last season (76.8 to 71.6 opponent points per game). The defense was primarily led by Jacobs, who led not only the team but the conference in blocked shots as a 6’2” guard. However, I believe this came from Lewis’ hire.
Another aspect of the game that I feel the Cardinals improved on this season was team chemistry. Last season it felt like everyone was out for individual accomplishments rather than winning games as a team. Lewis said it many times, the roster bought in and passed up good shots for great ones, which is one of the most important parts of basketball in my opinion.
A great example of buying in and being a team player is senior guard Luke Bumbalough who, in previous seasons, started and averaged at least seven points per game in his career, making 190 three-pointers (7th in BSU history). This season he was moved to bench production but remained invested in the team and its goals.
Perhaps the biggest improvement that came about this season was fan attendance and connection. Thanks in large part to great, cultivating play and "Nest Vouchers,” Worthen arena was lit up this season, seeing some of the best crowd numbers in a long time.
The Cardinals had an increase of 8,848 total fans at home this season in comparison to the last, averaging about 1,000 more fans per game. In a Feb. 3 overtime thriller, there were 6,068 fans in attendance, the largest in 14 years.
In big games this season, there was only one where it was evident Ball State wasn’t ready to compete at the top of the league. This was when they traveled to Kent, Ohio and were defeated handily by Kent State. This loss was followed by a devastating home loss to Buffalo.
Myself, fans and coach Lewis noticed the fire these two losses lit under the Cardinals, as they went on to win seven of the next eight contests, including their revenge win over the Golden Flashes.
It was a good season, although it didn’t end the way the players, coaches and fans wanted. Ball State lost all four of its final games, including the first round of the MAC tournament. However, these losses could all be chalked up to down team health.
Jacobs had been dealing with nagging injuries for over a month, Coleman had been dealing with a recurring foot injury and didn’t practice with the team until a day before the matchup with Ohio. Sparks dealt with a left wrist injury and Pearson missed time with a lower leg injury.
These factors, coupled with late-season fatigue, put the Cardinals at a disadvantage to finish what was otherwise a solid season. It was evident all the games, with the team not having the energy and the conditioning to compete at the level they wanted to.
All in all, I believe this season was the right step forward for what was previously a struggling program who were typically just conference tournament hopefuls. This season they were a contender for the title and many would say they could’ve been dancing in March Madness right now.
Contact Derran Cobb with comments at email@example.com or on Twitter @Derran_cobb.