At the beginning of last season, Brady Sallee harped on being “Five points better,” a slogan that came after Ball State women’s basketball’s four-point loss the following year in the Mid-American Conference (MAC) Championship. With a slogan last season, the 12th-year head coach feels different about the 2023-24 team.
“I do not think this is a team that needs a slogan. I don’t think it is a team that needs motivation or reminding,” Sallee said. “I think it is a team that is going to embrace the expectations and go ball.
“They understand what has got to happen.”
Sallee said people can expect the team to look very different with the loss of former All-MAC athletes Anna Clephane and Thelma Dis Agustdottir.
“We are still trying to figure out some identity stuff,” Sallee said. “Are we going to be the team who scored 75 a night and run you out of the gym or are we going to have to defend and turn teams over more?”
The junior class
While having two more years with the junior class, Sallee said he is going to enjoy the time with them while he has it, but also knows it is going to be “near impossible” to replace them when they graduate.
The “core” junior class he’ll eventually have to replace are Ally Becki, Marie Kiefer and Madelyn Bischoff, while new additions of Alex Richard and Nyla Hampton boost the juniors' numbers.
“Even if it is two years away, I am already thinking about it because of how good they are,” Sallee said.
The leader of the junior class, Becki, is coming off of a Second Team All-MAC season last year. She said she has been working on a lot of 1-on-1 action with associate head coach Audrey McDonald-Spencer.
“We have been doing a lot of range, posting up and also trying to be more of a leader on the court as well,” Becki said.
Working on her leadership, Becki said other teammates trust in her as a leader, which is a strong point to have because she will be running the offense. She said as the floor general, it is essential to hold her teammates accountable.
One of those trusted teammates is Bischoff, who started every game of the 2022-23 season alongside Becki.
“In my sophomore year, I gained more confidence in myself,” Bischoff said.
Sallee said Bischoff will take on a larger load this year, with the role of making bigger shots for the team.
Kiefer started all 35 games last season in the post position. She spent this offseason trying to become a more versatile scorer from inside and out, hoping to create some matchup problems for opposing teams.
“There is none other like her in the league,” Sallee said, referring to Kiefer. “There is nobody with that athleticism, that agility in our league. There are some bigs, but they do not move like she does, and there are guards, but they do not block shots like she does.”
Even though she is trying to expand her game to the arc, Kiefer hopes to keep improving on her game in the post, where she can take advantage of mismatches.
“You think about those five being with you for the next two years, that is why I scheduled the way I did,” Sallee said. “I know I have got those kids and we are going to do it again the following year with them. We have got this group for two years, we have got to get this thing done. The talent is there, the mindset is there and I feel really good about those five.”
“The head of the snake”
This past offseason, Nyla Hampton entered the transfer portal. On her visit to Ball State, it didn’t take long for her to realize the culture was the right fit. She said during her time at Bowling Green, she always recognized how hard the Cardinals competed, and always knew the Falcons were in for a tough challenge.
“When I came on a visit, I got to hang with the girls, I got to see all of the coaches, and it was a good fit. Everyone was really cool and felt really welcoming,” Hampton said.
With Hampton signing on the dotted line, the Cardinals secured the reigning MAC Defensive Player of the Year. Adapting to the changing landscape of college sports has been important for Sallee, as it looks a lot different now than when he first started.
Sallee said he feels Hampton is an “outlier” compared to the usual players who enter their names in the portal.
“If there are five kids that are more impactful transferring somewhere to another school, I’d like to find them,” Sallee said.
Becki has just begun to get a feel of what playing with Hampton has been like.
“[Hampton] is very present on the court and you can tell that she is there offensively and defensively,” Becki said.
Kiefer said Hampton is a perfect fit. Like she’s been a part of the family for years.
Sallee said that the Cardinals are going to look much different defensively than in years past. The addition of Hampton is the start of that change, and Sallee expects there will be plenty of games this year where the defense can win by force and aggression.
“She is the head of the snake,” Sallee said. “Everybody else is playing off of what she does on the ball.”
It’s not often the reigning MAC Defensive Player of the Year becomes available in the transfer portal. It’s even rarer for a player of that caliber to move within a mid-major conference.
Hampton has made the All-MAC Defensive First Team in all three of her collegiate seasons. Last season, she averaged 10.3 points per game, and paired with 2.9 steals per game.
Even with winning the MAC Defensive Player of the Year, Hampton is still looking to improve upon her impressive 2022-23 campaign this season.
Newcomers, Ashlynn Brooke and the Smith twins
Both players and coaches recognize when freshman newcomers enter the program each year there is a learning curve to college ball.
“The change of pace is something you cannot prepare for,” freshman Ashlynn Brooke said. “That has been the biggest struggle for me.”
Brooke is joining a position group with Becki, Hampton and sophomore Hana Mühl. Brooke said the experience they possess has not only challenged her but helped her progress to the speed of college athletics.
Brooke said the team as a whole has been properly welcoming, helping in everything from figuring out plays to coming over to have dinner.
“If I am struggling through something, someone else is going to help me up and make sure that I am OK, and I would do the same for someone else,” Brooke said. “It really does feel like family.”
Although she is new to the college scene, the seventh-best player in Indiana for the class of 2023 has been in big moments before, hitting a game-winner in her sophomore year in the state finals.
Brooke averaged 23.8 points, 5.4 rebounds and 5.6 assists per game in her senior year of high school at Pioneer.
“She’s a good player, I think she is going to help us in a lot of different ways,” Sallee said.
Even with the stellar high school statistics, when Brooke was injured - a torn ACL and a torn meniscus - she said Ball State stuck by her every step of the way, making it an easy choice on where to commit to.
The Cardinals picked up two other freshmen in the recruiting cycle with twin sisters Hailey and Olivia Smith. The Fishers natives averaged about 10 points per game each.
Ball State is getting ready for what Sallee has called the toughest schedule in his time as head coach. It starts Nov. 24 when the Cardinals welcome preseason Associated Press (AP) poll No. 10 Notre Dame to Worthen Arena, as well as when the Cardinals travel to Storrs, Connecticut, to face off with the Huskies, who were voted No. 2 in the preseason AP poll.
“For me, it was simple. I know I’ve got a good team, and I wanted to put them on a stage that would hopefully give them an opportunity to build a resume that would have the tournament committee going ‘This team belongs,’” Sallee said. “I think if you look at our schedules through the years, clearly I’m not scared to play anybody.”
Looking ahead to Notre Dame, the Fighting Irish handed the Cardinals a 95-60 loss in South Bend last year. Despite the wide margin loss, Sallee said there are lessons to be learned in those games.
“Our kids paid attention to what that level was like, and then what we had to do to get closer to that,” Sallee said. “From there I saw a team wanting to get better, and making strides to do it.”
Even if people only come to see Notre Dame, Sallee said he hopes they will see the Cardinals and discover that they want to continue to come and watch the type of basketball Ball State plays.
With the Fighting Irish coming to Worthen, Bischoff echoed Sallee, thinking it will be a great opportunity not only for the team but the community.
“It is one of the biggest schools in Indiana, so I think it will be really meaningful and a really cool experience for us and the community,” Bischoff said.
Ball State will also face off with Power-5 schools Georgia and Pittsburgh on a neutral floor when the Cardinals play in the Sun Coast Challenge in Tampa, Florida from Dec. 19-21. Their schedule also sees road games at Western Kentucky as well as St. Louis, who won the Atlantic-10 conference a season ago.
“It’s exciting, it’s daunting…but if you’re a competitor, it’s what you want, and I think I have a team full of them,” Sallee said.
Sallee made no question about it, the Cardinals’ main goal is to win in Cleveland. Entering year 12 as the head coach of the Cardinals, a MAC title is the one thing missing from Sallee’s resume.
“Clearly, the elephant in the room is that we have to break through and win this thing,” Sallee said.
Coming off a season that saw the Cardinals win 26 games, Ball State was still left packing in March after a semifinal loss to Bowling Green in the MAC tournament. Although Ball State played in the Women’s National Invitational Tournament (WNIT), Becki said there is still a bad taste in the Cardinals’ mouth for how things ended.
“The way things ended was not right or what we wanted,” Becki said.
Because of the consistency in the program over the years, Sallee said there are expectations that come with that.
“I’ve always hung my hat on trying to make sure we have a group that could think about winning championships,” Sallee said.
Sallee remembers walking out onto the court for his first game 12 years ago, looking into the crowd and seeing an overwhelming amount of empty seats.
“This is going to change,” Sallee told assistant coach Audrey McDonald-Spencer.
Since then, it has. In 2012, Sallee’s first year as head coach, the average attendance in Worthen Arena for women’s basketball was 928. In 2022-23, that number was 1,669. The program has grown thanks to the tight relationship the team has built with the community.
“Our biggest job is giving them a product with a type of kid that they want to support,” Sallee said.
There are certain boxes Sallee wants to check to make sure fans have a reason to come support. The types of players on the team and the product on the floor are the keys to keep fans coming back.
“The one thing I’ve always thought with women’s basketball is we have to be accessible, we have to make connections with fans,” Sallee said. “I want our fans to be able to dap our players up after our game. I want our players to engage with them and thank them for coming. I want that kind of relationship between the community, students, and our team.”
Sallee hopes the community and the student body will recognize that the Cardinals are what he called a special group, saying they are worth the price of admission.
The Cardinals start their season Nov. 6 against Tennessee Tech University at 11 a.m. in Muncie.