The legend goes that the late Rick Majerus once said that Ball State was “the best kept secret in the Midwest” when it came to men's basketball.
He would know, as he coached the program from 1987-89.
Majerus' opinion may well be true, but the new Cardinals basketball coach believes it has reached an extreme.
“We are almost a better secret than I want us to be,” said James Whitford, who took the Cardinals job in April after assistant coaching stints with Arizona, Xavier and Miami (Ohio). “People don't know about us until we bang down their door. Once we get them on our campus, we are in great shape.”
Thus lies the challenge for Whitford as he looks to bring back a program that had eight NCAA and NIT Tournament appearances over an 11-year span between 1989 and 2000 but just one (2002) since.
It is a large undertaking as interest has waned from fans and perspective recruits alike, but one that Whitford believes can be turned around.
“The first few months here have gone well, with the changed NCAA rules allowing us to build relationships with our players and insert our style of play and system,” Whitford said. “Conversely, the big thing for us right now is recruiting and we are working hard on potential recruits.”
Recruiting has brought Whitford and his staff to Northeast Indiana a handful of times already. While not able to talk about specific players, he has liked what he has seen from area talent.
“To me, Fort Wayne is a natural when it comes to recruiting because it is almost like a home court for Ball State,” Whitford said. “It is an easy drive and there are good players around here.”
Ball State recently offered Wayne senior Justin Mitchell a scholarship while there has been talk that Whitford's assistants have been in contact with North Side junior guard Sean McGee.
A new coach's first recruiting class is always critical, more so with where the Cardinals are at after last year's 15-15 season under former coach Billy Taylor. Four incoming freshmen will join the team next season, with Whitford hoping to ink another five this cycle.
Whether the class comes from inside or outside the state does not much matter to Whitford, although with his experience at Xavier and Miami (OH) knows the wealth of talent in the region.
“We want to be able to recruit in-state kids not because of a loyalty thing, but just because there are very good high school basketball coaches that coach some very good players in the state of Indiana,” Whitford said. “We recognize the talent level in the state of Indiana and we want to try and exploit that.”