Disappointed yet optimistic: Members of Ball State men’s basketball reflect on the season and the future of the program

Junior forward Mickey Pearson Jr.  and freshman guard Trent Middleton Jr. run up court against Kent State University Mar. 5 at Worthen Arena. Liz Peterson, DN.
Junior forward Mickey Pearson Jr. and freshman guard Trent Middleton Jr. run up court against Kent State University Mar. 5 at Worthen Arena. Liz Peterson, DN.

Trent Middleton Jr. looked at the ground, but a smile crept across his face. Sitting in a chair in a corner tunnel, his back was turned to the main court and bleachers at Worthen Arena. 

He turned and looked over his left shoulder at the jumbotron hanging high above the hardwood. 

The freshman guard thought back to Saturday, Feb. 6; a 2 p.m. Mid-American Conference (MAC) contest against Ohio. Although it was Middleton’s fourth collegiate start, it was his first in front of the Muncie, Indiana, crowd.

“Hearing the fans cheer for me and to see my picture up there, that motivates me to go hard,” Middleton said. “All my life, just to get here and then on top of that to start, it's just a dream come true.”

Middleton estimated that he has been playing basketball since he was 3 or 4 years old. Now, he’s 20 and ended his first season of Division I basketball with seven starts in 27 games played.

He said there isn’t a day in his life that goes by that doesn’t involve basketball. 

“I’m a gym rat,” Middleton said. “Even if we technically have an off day, I'm still here getting shots or doing some type of stuff that helps my game.”

Middleton highlighted his mother, Tonya, and his father, Trent, as the reason for his drive on and off the court. After being offered a spot at Ball State in late August 2023, Middleton quickly worked to prove he deserved a spot in the rotation. 

Tonya and Trent Sr. weren’t able to attend a game until Saturday, March 2, but supported him throughout the season from Philadelphia. 

“It’s been crazy, they still can't believe it,” he said. “They’re just making sure they push me every single day, making sure I don’t take advantage of an opportunity and thank God.” 

After 31 games came and went, Trent wasn’t the only Cardinal who experienced growth throughout the ups and downs. 

Three-headed monster


Junior forward Basheer Jihad shoots the ball against Eastern Michigan Feb. 24 at Worthen Arena. Jihad had 18 points in the game. Andrew Berger, DN

Ball State came into the 2023-24 season riding the momentum of a 20-win campaign the season before, yet feeling the sting of a blowout loss in the first round of the MAC Tournament and losing its four top scorers in Jaylin Sellers, Payton Sparks, Jerron ‘Boogie’ Coleman and Demarius Jacobs to either graduation or the transfer portal. 

Of the 14 members of the Cardinals in the 2023-24 season, only six were with the program the season prior. While most of the eight transfers or freshmen to join Ball State during the offseason were largely inexperienced at the division I level, junior guard Jalin Anderson spent three seasons at Loyola Marymount to prepare him for the jump to the MAC.

Starting 30 games, Anderson finished the season with career highs in points per game (16.1) and assists per game (4.5). He even finished third in the MAC in minutes per game with 36.3. 

The Tennessee native said this was only possible for him by looking inward.

“I had to grow, I had to change,” Anderson said. 

Ball State saw former role players like redshirt junior center Ben Hendriks and junior forward Basheer Jihad earn significantly more playing time, with the latter evolving into one of the best players in the conference. Jihad ended the season with the fourth-highest points per game average in the MAC with 18.6 and the fifth-highest rebounds per game average with eight, earning an All-MAC Second Team honor. 

Junior guard Davion Bailey made the jump from Southeastern Community College to division I when he transferred to Ball State, just 51 miles away from Pike High School in Indianapolis where he graduated. Bailey said when he was recruited by Michael Lewis, the second-year head coach told him he wasn’t concerned about developing Bailey’s scoring skills, but developing the rest of his game to elevate him as a whole. 

However, Bailey said when he gets the ball and looks to score, there is only one thing on his mind. 

“I can’t let one person stop me,” he said. “Coach always says, ‘If one person can stop you, what does that say about you?’” 

He finished the season on crutches after sustaining a broken foot in practice March 7, but still ended up with the third-highest 3-point percentage in the MAC at 42.5 percent. 

‘The real grind’

MBB v Ohio 11.JPG
Ball State men's basketball head coach Michael Lewis talks to Junior guard Jalin Anderson during a time out against Ohio Feb. 6 at Worthen Arena. The Cardinals lost 84-79 to the Bobcats. Mya Cataline, DN

Despite finishing 8-5 in non-conference play and winning eight of the first 10 games of the season, Ball State endured a six-game losing streak, dropping five of its first six MAC games. The Cardinals went on to finish with a 7-11 record in the MAC.

“We never pointed fingers,” Middleton said. “We all just came together.”

This was Mickey Pearson Jr.’s third season at Ball State after transferring from TCU, where he spent one season. The Horned Frogs didn’t make the NCAA Tournament in 2020-21, but Pearson saw limited action in the first round of the Big XII Tournament. 

At Ball State, he has played in both of the Cardinals’ first-round MAC Tournament games. Ball State was a six seed and four seed, respectively, in Pearson’s two appearances, so chasing a tournament bid late in the season was unfamiliar to Pearson.

He said he drew back on his big game experience to try to help lead the Cardinals to a spot in the conference tournament this season. 

Along with Pearson, Jihad is perhaps the biggest leader on the roster, and he said he used his role during the closing stretch of the season to help young Cardinals who hadn’t played in high-pressure situations keep their confidence high. 

He acknowledged the curveballs thrown Ball State’s way in the form of three season-ending injuries and late transfers away from the program during the offseason, but he didn’t use either of those as an excuse for the Cardinals’ eight losses by six points or less. 

He described those defeats as feeling like he had something in the palm of his hands before someone snatched it away.

“It's been up and down, but I feel like for the most part we competed every night,” Jihad said. “It’s just making those winning plays and doing those winning things that could have turned this season from where it is now to being a top four or five seed.” 

Jihad said during the closing stretch of the season, the two plastic bands on his left wrist carried an extra meaning. One reads “Be scared, and do it anyway,” while the other reads “Impossible.” 

“These are two good messages I can relate to,” Jihad said. “It’s a beautiful game. You can go out there, and you can make an impact in every which way, not just scoring.”

With three games remaining in the regular season, Ball State men’s basketball sat one game out of the MAC Tournament in ninth place. 

“This is where the real grind starts,” Pearson said. “All the work you've been putting in in the summer, the fall [and] this past winter really shows. Everyone's banged up, and no one is really 100 percent. The tougher teams are gonna win the games.”


Junior guard Davion Bailey takes a 3-point shot against Miami Feb. 17 at Millet Hall. Bailey made six 3-point shots in the game. Andrew Berger, DN

Bailey said the key to success in the final three games would be taking care of the little things, specifically mental errors that prevented the Cardinals from closing many games. 

“We got to win. Now's the time if we want a chance to go to the tournament,” Bailey said Feb. 28. 

Not undermining the importance of solving mental errors, Pearson offered up another way the Cardinals needed to improve their game to have late-season success. 

“We gotta punch first,” he said Feb 28. “So many times we get hit first, we get punched first, we get knocked out first, and then we fight back.”
After the dust settled, Ball State finished the final three games with a 1-2 record, losing on a buzzer-beater in overtime to Western Michigan, taking care of business at home against the Golden Flashes and ending the regular season on a losing note at Bowling Green.

“All the ups and downs this year taught us how to win,” Jihad said. “I think that’s the most important part.” 

Despite missing the MAC Tournament for the first time since the format changed in 2020-21 to only including the first eight teams in the standings, Anderson seems optimistic for next season, with a potential nucleus of young and experienced players to build around if most Cardinals choose to return to the program.

“We’re good. We’re really good,” Anderson said. “We have a legitimate chance to do a lot of things — we could play in the postseason. If we keep this core together, we could do a lot of damage.” 

Moving forward 

Lewis knew the situation Ball State was in to start the season, and he tried his best to never use it as an excuse for the Cardinals’ lack of depth or experience. While he wasn’t expecting a departure as late or as impactful as Jerron ‘Boogie’ Coleman’s was on the final day of the transfer portal’s opening, Lewis knew he still had three months to prepare those on the roster for the upcoming season. 

“I'm pissed at myself for the amount of time and energy and thought that I allowed some of the things outside of what we can control as a team affect how I coached,” Lewis said. “I came here for a reason: I came here to build a solid program.” 

Lewis is the fifth head coach in the last 25 years for Ball State, a program that hasn’t won the MAC or made the NCAA Tournament since 2000. While Lewis is glad to have his first head coaching opportunity come for the Cardinals, he understands the spot the program has been stuck in for a quarter of a century.

While the offseason for Ball State has only just begun, the MAC announced Feb. 29, 2024, that the University of Massachusetts (UMass) is set to join the conference in all sports beginning in the 2025-26 season. The Minutemen finished the regular season with 20 wins this year, and Lewis is already preparing for how Ball State can approach the ever-changing landscape of college sports in the near future.

“You got to peel back those layers a little bit and take a deep dive into what has transpired and ask, ‘Why are we not experiencing the success Ball State has had in the past?’ I'm excited about being a part of those conversations and being a part of the solution,” Lewis said. “You add a monster like UMass and the sirens start going off. Some issues that have been ignored for 20 years, now they're front and center.

“There's no reason why Ball State doesn’t have a really good basketball program.”

Contact Kyle Smedley with comments via email at kyle.smedley@bsu.edu or on X @KyleSmedley_.


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