Nearly an hour after the 3,071 reported fans left their red seats in Worthen Arena, one man remained in uniform, putting shots up.
Ball State may have just defeated Goshen 101-40 in the Cardinals’ season opener, but that wasn’t enough for Basheer Jihad. The 6’7” forward from Detroit may have dropped a career-high 21 points in the win, but there he was with a defender on him working on his post game.
With the loss of Payton Sparks to the transfer portal, Ball State men’s basketball has a hole to fill in the paint. Jihad, despite his play style lending itself more towards that of a wing, wants to be the man to do it.
Against the Maple Leafs, he scored 15 of his 21 points in the paint, blocked three shots and grabbed four rebounds. Head coach Michael Lewis said the only way for the Cardinals’ inexperienced roster to improve is to throw them into the fire.
“It may not look the prettiest each and every night, it may be a little bit of a roller coaster ride, but it's only going to help these guys develop quicker,” he said.
The Cardinals have eight players new to the program, and while redshirt freshman Micah Bell isn’t one of them, he earned more minutes against Goshen than he did in his lone appearance last season.
In his 20 minutes of play, Bell scored a career-high 14 points, something Lewis attributed to what he called Bell’s best week of practice since he came to Ball State last season. Bell credited the newcomers success in game one to their quickly-formed bond.
“[We’re] just continuing to learn about each other on and off the court,” Bell said. “I feel like we're gelling well, getting better chemistry every day.”
Only six of the eight new faces played against Goshen, as freshman guard Joey Brown and graduate student guard Ethan Brittain-Watts did not dress. Lewis said Brown is dealing with a shoulder injury whereas Brittain-Watts is dealing with a hip/groin injury.
Even without a roster at full strength, the Cardinals went on a 27-0 run to end the first half; Goshen didn’t score for more than nine minutes.
“We got a lot of athletes on our team,” Jihad said. “So we can get out running, score easy points and we got a lot of people who can score.”
Ball State never looked back after the 48-14 first half, as four Cardinals finished with double digit points. Especially with a squad filled with freshmen, transfers and returners who haven’t seen the court much in the past, Lewis recognized the importance of a lopsided contest that allowed for 12 players to contribute.
“We need every rep we can get,” Lewis said. “These guys need every bit of experience that they can get; I don't care who it's against.”
However, Lewis said the Cardinals still have a long way to go to get to the point of playing his definition of Ball State basketball.
“I want us to be hard to guard offensively. I want us to be disruptive defensively. I want when guys come in here, they're prepared; when they play, they play smart, they play tough and we play our ass off,” Lewis said.
While neither Bell, Jihad or Lewis took Goshen (0-3) lightly, the Cardinals have a much more challenging opponent ahead. Ball State hosts Old Dominion (1-0) of the Sun-Belt Conference at 2 p.m. November 11.
Lewis said he knows the Cardinals won’t be able to score 100+ points often this season, but he does feel there are things Ball State did well against the Maple Leafs that are universally applicable.
“We know that we're going to be faced with a tougher challenge on Saturday,” Jihad said. “So the things that we did well, like moving the ball from side to side, that’s going to translate no matter who we play.”
Even when his squad was up by more than 60 points with less than 10 minutes in the game, Lewis was shouting at players and officials. Without question, Lewis’ animated nature as a coach is inspired by one of his biggest mentors, Bobby Knight.
Following Knight’s death less than a week ago, Lewis released an online statement the next day and even honored his former coach at Indiana University by wearing a classic red sweater during Ball State’s Nov. 2 exhibition against Rose-Hullman. One last time after the Cardinals’ season-opening win, Lewis took a moment to reflect on what the Hall of Fame college basketball coach meant to him.
“I wouldn't be doing what I'm doing today if it weren't for him,” Lewis said. “He was always there. He always answered the phone just like he did for hundreds of other players … He gave a lot of guys a foundation to be successful.