Even though they spend a large chunk of almost every day together now, Michael Lewis and Basheer Jihad haven’t even known each other for two years. Ball State men’s basketball’s second-year head coach came to Muncie in April 2022, where he met the then 18-year-old for the first time.
“He had that terrible word potential attached to him,” Lewis said.
Over the course of last season, in which Jihad was the sixth-leading scorer for the Cardinals with 7.1 points per game, Lewis saw the Detroit native take small steps toward shedding the label of “potential.” After Ball State’s top-four leading scorers entered the transfer portal, Lewis expected even more out of Jihad heading into the 2023-24 season.
Averaging a team-high 19.3 points per game through the first 10 games, Jihad has put on the label of “leader.”
“He's playing with a ton of confidence,” Lewis said. “That's nothing that I can give him; that confidence comes from the work that he's put in.”
Jihad has exemplified that confidence more so than ever during the most recent five-game stretch for the Cardinals. Just four days after dropping a career-high 26 points against his hometown Detroit Mercy, Jihad topped that performance with 27 points and 10 rebounds in Ball State’s 83-71 win over SIU Edwardsville (6-5).
This was Jihad’s third-straight double-double and his fourth in five games. Prior to this season, he had never recorded one at the collegiate level.
“I didn’t know what to expect, being the main person on the scouting report,” Jihad said.
Jihad said the key to his development through the early stages of the season has been establishing comfortability being a more emphasized part of the offense and a more consistent presence in the paint. Although much of that comfort comes from gameplay, Jihad said he does a lot of work outside of what is required of him at practice, like putting up extra shots with graduate assistants before or after games and practice.
“Come tomorrow at 10 a.m. I’m gonna be on him to continue to get better,” Lewis said as he looked over his left shoulder at Jihad. “This can't be your best game. You've got to continue to grow. He's done a lot of really good things for us and I couldn't be happier for him.”
Now 19-years-old, Jihad said he works a lot with experienced teammates, like redshirt junior Jalin Anderson, about his decision-making and vision on the court. These two areas are perhaps where the former Loyola Marymount guard excels the most in as he dropped 21 points and five assists on no turnovers against the Cougars.
Coming off a season-high eight turnovers against Detroit Mercy, Anderson said he approached the game against SIUE wanting to play smarter and looking to take a more-balanced mindset when it came to passing and shooting.
“I'm going to always be aggressive,” Anderson said. “I’m always making sure I keep guys like ‘Sheer, Mickey, JB [Joey Brown], Ben and everybody on my team get easy buckets, and then it opens up everything for me.”
With their win over the Cougars, in which they held the lead for the full 40 minutes, the Cardinals moved to 7-0 at home this season and 18-2 in Muncie during Lewis’ tenure.
“I’m pissed off about the two losses,” Lewis laughed.
With just two more non-conference games before Mid-American Conference (MAC) play starts Jan. 2, this was Ball State’s last non-conference home game until 2024. Sitting at 8-2 and knowing both losses this season have come on the road, Jihad said there “absolutely” is a difference between playing at Worthen Arena as opposed to traveling.
Jihad praised the environment Ball State fans bring to home games and even said having a familiarity with the rims in Worthen help make things easier. Anderson agreed, but called on past advice from Lewis to help put things in perspective as to why the Cardinals should be able to better succeed on the road.
“Whether we’re at somebody else’s place or some random park, we’re still hooping,” Anderson said. “The court is 94 feet by 50 feet, and the rims are 10 feet.”
Before playing against the B1GTEN’s Minnesota (7-3) Dec. 21, Ball State travels to Gainbridge Fieldhouse in Indianapolis Saturday, Dec. 16, for its next contest against Indiana State (9-1) as part of the Indy Classic. Lewis said he won’t even let playing in the same space as the Indiana Pacers affect the way the Cardinals’ play the game.
“I talk to these guys about playing to a standard of Ball State basketball; it don't matter where we're at, you got to play to that standard," Lewis said.