As music by artists such as Drake, Lil Baby, 21 Savage and more played from personal speakers on the floor of Worthen Arena, smiles shined brighter than the lighting setup for Ball State men’s basketball’s media day.
Just a week into the Cardinals’ official practice regimen, 14 athletes laughed, sang and danced as they posed for promotional photos. Head coach Michael Lewis chuckled as he looked across the gym, jokingly referring to the group as “clowns.”
Despite the atmosphere and positivity in the air, more than half of those suiting up for Ball State are new to the program, with eight newcomers joining just six players returning from last season.
“We all got the same goal; We want to win,” freshman guard Trent Middleton said. “It was kind of easy for us to click.”
Like Middleton, Ethan Brittain-Watts is going into his first year at Ball State as a transfer from Boston University. Even as the most experienced collegiate athlete on the Cardinals, the graduate student said there is a different feel surrounding Ball State’s program, enhancing his decision to move to Muncie.
“Basketball is universal,” Brittain-Watts said. “So when I see guys coming in, putting up shots, exercising, staying late, I want to go out there and fight for guys like that.
“The closest team in March wins, especially when you're in a league where you have to win your conference to make it to March Madness.”
This is the fourth team Ben Hendriks has been a part of at Ball State, and he already said it feels like the tightest-knit. Freshman center Zane Doughty, who led the charge for Ben Davis’ 33-0 campaign that culminated in an IHSAA Class 4A State Championship last season, has seen how far chemistry can take a team.
Even though he’s only been around his new teammates for around four months, he said the Cardinals are starting to feel like a family. Freshman forward Mason Jones said he and most of the team have been in Muncie since June, getting a head start on building the team chemistry necessary for a squad with more newcomers than returners.
“Whether it's two of us or the whole team, we're always rocking with each other,” Jones said.
While this chemistry was developed over a short amount of time, it didn’t come overnight; the new culture needed a cultivator.
The Michael Lewis effect
In his first season at Ball State after three years as an assistant coach at UCLA, Michael Lewis focused on creating more community engagement surrounding the program than ever. He said he looked at what successful programs around the country do to thrive, and all of them were founded on community support.
“It's what brought me back here,” Lewis said.
Lewis said he approaches fan engagement as a second job, one that involves him using whatever promotional tactic available to get students to come to games. So, he began to partner with Ball State athletics to give away ticket vouchers promising free food or alcohol to the first predetermined amount of fans to sign up.
Not only did the Cardinals’ record improve from 14-17 to 20-12, but average attendance rates at Worthen Arena jumped from 3203 per game to 4152 per game.
“They realized we play basketball here at Ball State again,” Lewis said.
Last year’s increased fan support even caught the eyes of potential transfers, influencing junior guards Jalin Anderson and Davion Bailey to make the jump to Muncie. Anderson transferred from Loyola Marymount, a program that averaged just 1201 fans per home game.
“These fans give us life,” Anderson said. “It's hard to play in an empty gym; I’ve had to do it before and you got to create your own energy. I'm looking at this massive arena and I haven't played in a home gym like this before. So I'm looking forward to playing in front of all these fans, bringing the energy of joy.”
Although Bailey is transferring from Southeastern Community College in South Carolina, he’s familiar with Ball State as a graduate of Pike High School in Indianapolis.
“We want the support because we know we deserve it.” Bailey said. “We’re going to win games and put on a show.”
Name, Image and Likeness//Recruitment Strategy
While Lewis approached last season with an eye toward establishing a culture he wants the program to be based on, he inherited a squad largely recruited by the previous regime. Lewis said he’ll always remember last season’s lineup, but admitted this group is truly the first one created from his vision.
Former All-MAC athletes Payton Sparks, Jarron Coleman and Jaylin Sellers all transferred to larger programs in the offseason, leaving a noticeable void for the Cardinals to fill. The second-year head coach didn’t beat around the bush; he recognized those transfers’ decisions largely came down to the potential to make more money than they would at Ball State with the emergence of Name, Image and Likeness (NIL) endorsement deals.
But that’s not what Lewis calls it.
“It’s not Name, Image [and] Likeness; It’s pay for play,” Lewis said. “Just admit what it is and try to figure out how to best utilize it.
“I'm all for guys making money, I'm just not sure that how we're operating is the best. I do think there has to be some things put in place, and when those things are put in place they need to be enforced.”
Lewis argued these endorsement deals may adversely affect collegiate athletes who may not make it to the professional level.
“I just don't think with the way things are set up we're operating in reality to what it comes to when these guys become true adults,” Lewis said. “You don't just get to do that in life. There's repercussions to everything that you do, and I'm not sure if we're doing our best job in preparing these guys.
“We're giving these guys money, [but] what are we doing with it to teach them about investing? Some of these guys are making more money [from] 18 to 22 years old than they're gonna make from 22 to 30. What are we doing to educate them? What are we teaching them about taxes, investments, credit, mortgages? Are we really setting them up to be successful in life?”
Although he is the head coach of a mid-major program, Lewis understands what a Power-5 system’s recruiting process looks like. As a former B1G TEN athlete and former assistant coach for Big XII, B1GTEN and PAC-12 programs, he acknowledged he doesn’t have the same type of money those programs have to draw in recruits, so he turns toward appealing to players’ emotions.
Doughty said when Ball State started recruiting him, Lewis made him feel like a priority. Brittain-Watts said Lewis is someone he feels like would run a brick wall for the Cardinals, inspiring the players on the team to do the same for their coach.
“Anybody, especially now, that says they're going to a college for any other reason than the coach are completely lying,” Brittain-Watts said. “Basketball is gonna be basketball, but having a coach that cares about you and is willing to do anything to put you in the best situation to be your best self [is great].”
Anderson felt the same way.
“Coach Lewis is my guy,” Anderson said. “He stays on me all the time, but I know that is what I need. He's pushing me to be the best version of myself. He was an elite point guard back in the day, so I know what he brought to the game and he can really elevate my game.”
Lewis told the Cardinals early on that he isn’t required to play anyone; he sent a message that playing time is earned, not given just because he recruited them. Players like Brittain-Watts said they appreciate this honesty, inspiring them to work harder.
“Lose yourself in the process of getting better, and everything else will take care of itself,” Lewis tells recruits.
With only six returners, only one of which has experience in the starting lineup for Ball State: redshirt junior forward Mickey Pearson Jr. However, he only averaged slightly more than five shots per game on 5.5 points per game last season.
“[My role has changed to] become more of a leader and a leader of the team,” Pearson said. “I expanded my game.
“I just tried to continue the things that I always do. I’m trying to get to the gym early and get as many shots as I can [to work on] all levels of the game to be the best player on the team.”
When it comes to the expansion of his on-court skills, Pearson used the offseason to work on his three-point shooting and ball handling. Fellow returner junior forward Basheer Jihad said he focused his time during the offseason to work on playing through contact as he aims to become a more prominent scorer with his increased role.
Middleton said the Cardinals should best flourish on offense through their transition game, something Jihad said best suits his style of play.
“I'm not like Payton; I’m not a brute inside,” Jihad said. “I can do that, but that's not my game. I’m stretching the floor more, and I can do everything, so wherever you're going to put me, I can do it.”
Like Jihad, Hendriks is looking to fill a bigger role than he has in his previous three years; last season he only played in 13 of 32 games, accumulating 41 total minutes. For him, that means showing the eight newcomers how Ball State basketball operates.
“You're not going to be playing against a guy that you practice against 50 times and you know what he's gonna do,” Hendriks said. “You're gonna go against 250 [pounds], a guy that is really big, really strong and has different moves sets from what we have.”
On the court, Hendriks feels he can best help the Cardinals in the pick-and-roll game, setting screens many defenders can’t get around.
Lewis said he wants to see returners grow into larger leadership roles, as most of them are mostly reserved or soft-spoken. But he doesn’t just expect that out of familiar faces.
Ball State recruited eight new players for the upcoming season. In a short window, the recruits have blended well with the returners, Pearson said.
“The young players are really athletic and they learn fast,” Pearson said. “It's been pretty good getting to know them and getting them acclimated with certain things on the floor.”
Five of the new Cardinals are true freshmen: guard Joey Brown, Jones, Doughty, Middleton and guard Jurica Zagorsak. Doughty, specifically, will have a bigger role with Ball State as he attempts to fill the spot Sparks left when he transferred to Indiana.
“I just love proving people wrong,” Doughty said. “I wasn't one of those ranked players [in high school], but when I would go against a five-star [recruit], that would excite me. I wanted to expose them.”
To Anderson, the freshmen have proved they deserve to be here with their play on the court.
“I see the greatness,” Anderson said. “They have it for sure. Them being freshmen is unbelievable. With Trent to Jury to Joey to Mason to Zane, our freshman court is really elite, and they're going to be super special for us.”
A newcomer himself, Anderson said he has been able to see everyone for the first time this season. Yet to him, Brown sticks out because of the way he plays.
“He's a Swiss army knife; Joey is an athlete,” Anderson said. “He can handle the ball, shoot, and put his head over the rim. He could post up smaller guards and he could go by bigger defenders. Joey is going to be very special.”
While Anderson is big on talking highly about his teammates, they say the same thing about him.
“Jalin has made an impression, and he's been solid from day one,” Jihad said. “He's proved himself at a college level."
While most of the Cardinals have had to get used to Muncie, another new arrival has had to adjust to the United States as a whole. Zagorsak is from Croatia and played for Jazine in the Croatian Prva League where he averaged 9.9 points per game.
When he arrived in Muncie, he had to find ways to fit in. Lucky for him, he is a foodie and will try anything. His teammates took him to many restaurants in the area.
“I like burgers and chicken,” he said. “...[Raising] Canes might be my favorite.”
Other names who will be playing in Worthen Arena for the first time this season include redshirt freshman Micah Bell, redshirt freshman Quincy Adams, Bailey and Brittain-Watts.
“Everybody has had a moment or two where they've shown some glimpses of what they can do,” Lewis said. “We've seen some growth, and I'm excited about what this young group can become.”
Basketball in Indiana can be big to some fans, and when it comes to college hoops in the Hoosier state, it may be a religion to some. This season, Ball State has many faces who call the Crossroads of America home.
“It just felt like home,” Jones said.
Jones is from Valparaiso, Indiana, and his family has had experience with Indiana college athletics.
Jones’ father played football at the University of Notre Dame, his mother played softball at Indiana University and his brother is currently on the Hoosiers’ football team. The former Mr. Basketball candidate knows he can’t ride the coattails of his family if he wants to achieve his own goals.
“Getting here is not enough,” Jones said. “Leaving a mark and succeeding and helping this team is what my main goal is.”
While most of the Cardinals met each other for the first time during the late summer, two athletes rekindled with each other after being apart for a period of time. During his AAU days, Bailey was teammates with fellow Indianapolis native Brittain-Watts.
“I miss [playing with him] because we were together for a long time,” Bailey said. “It is a blessing and I really appreciate it. I'm glad [Brittain-Watts] was able to make the decision [to come here] like I was.”
Leadership from old and new
With the number of new Cardinals this season, someone will need to step up and lead Ball State. Jihad already views himself as that person.
“[Being a leader] is the role I want,” he said. “I'm excited and I'm just trying to take advantage of it and be the best I can be for my team.”
Yet Jihad isn’t the only one who wants to do everything he can to help Ball State. Even with being new to Muncie himself, Anderson thinks it’s the reason he’s here.
“I've been in college basketball for some time and played in a really good conference, so my coaches expect me to be a leader, my teammates expect me to be a leader and I'm gonna speak for myself –I know that's the next step in my game,” Anderson said.
Anderson believes it is his next step to improve his all-around game.
“What it means to me and what it means for other people might be a little different,” Anderson said. “What it means to me is just taking that next level of leadership. Honestly, I truly believe everything on the court is going to take care of itself. So I’m going to play with a joyful heart.”
After winning the most games (20) since 2016-17, the returners want to improve on that number.
“We had a great season, but down the stretch, we just didn't finish the way we wanted to,” Pearson said of the Cardinals’ loss in the MAC Tournament. “So we're trying to use that as motivation to have a whole complete season and keep that chip on our shoulder.”
However, last season did something that will motivate the Cardinals during the 2023-24 campaign. It taught them how to win and how to do it as a team.
“[We learned] how hard it is to win,” Jihad said. “You gotta be focused, you got to key in on the details… Just being focused and having guys work hard throughout the season and consistently put the work in…we have more of those guys this year.”
Lewis recalled a piece of advice he heard from Brad Stevens, former head coach at Butler University and current general manager for the Boston Celtics; Stevens said coaches learn more from players than the other way around, something Lewis noticed during his first season as a head coach.
“Last year, we were trying to set a culture and an accountability for what our expectations were and what it takes to win at this level,” Lewis said. “This year, it's a lot more teaching and educating these guys on what our program is about.”
While Lewis wants to focus more on teaching the Cardinals on what the Ball State way is, last year’s success was something the new athletes want to expand upon.
“Everybody always says pressure is not real,” Anderson said. “Yes, it's real, but it’s about how you handle it. [Last year’s success] definitely adds a lot of pressure to us, but we're locked in on a mission. We're playing for each other.”
The Cardinals tip off the new season when they face Goshen Tuesday, Nov. 7, at 7 p.m. in Worthen Arena.
Contact Kyle Smedley with comments via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on X @KyleSmedley_. Contact Zach Carter with comments via email at email@example.com or on X @ZachCarter85.