MUNCIE – When Ball State men's basketball coach James Whitford wakes up this morning, he's going to realize three things:
1. He played an integral role in constructing the nation's No. 1 college basketball team (19-0 Arizona), and he chose to leave the Wildcats last spring.
2. It feels like it's negative 21 degrees in his new home (Muncie), as opposed to 68 above at his former residence (Tucson).
3. The team he is now coaching has just four victories this season.
Whitford's Ball State team has only four wins so far, and just two over NCAA Division I opposition, but it got its fourth by playing very well for stretches of time Thursday and beating Buffalo 71-68 in front of 3,072 fans at Worthen Arena.
“I told the guys before the game,” Whitford recalled after the victory, 'Think positive and trust that if you continue to do things well, work hard and focus on the little stuff, that someday soon, good things will come our way.'”
On Thursday, they did.
Ball State defended well (the Bulls shot just 7 percent, 1 of 14 from three-point range) and out-rebounded (35 to 32) the second-best rebounding team in the Mid-American Conference. And none of it surprised Whitford.
“We had Akron on the ropes (a 72-68 Cardinal defeat) and we were able to beat (Buffalo),” Whitford said. “We can compete with good teams when we do things well.”
Whitford and his coaches realize that, but he's had to play the part of team psychiatrist with his players throughout this season in order to keep their young minds confident.
“What I did this week (amid a four-game losing streak) is have a lot of one-on-one meetings,” Whitford said. “There's no question this is hard. ... Our job is to make sure that they can see the light at the end of the tunnel.”
Buffalo (9-6, 3-2 MAC) was just a half-game out of first place in the MAC East Division, but the Cardinals (4-12, 1-4) were able to beat the Bulls despite starting three true freshmen.
Guards Mark Alstork (five points in 25 minutes) and Zavier Turner (three assists in 32 minutes) and forward Franko House (12 points, six rebounds in 26 minutes) give fans – and Whitford – hope for the future.
Another positive sign is how hard the players continue to play, regardless of their record.
“When things start to go bad, you really see what you are made of,” Whitford said. “It hit home for me, because we certainly had a plan, and we haven't followed it to this point.”
Whitford knew that his initial season in Muncie wouldn't be perfect. But having seniors Majok, Majok, Chris Bond, Tyler Koch (who sat out Thursday's game with a hip injury) and Jesse Berry returning, no one envisioned the Cardinals getting their second Division I victory on Jan. 23. But through the adversity, Whitford's message has remained steady.
“The biggest thing is believing in what you do and not deviating from who you are,” Whitford said.
Whitford hasn't deviated from his desire to lead this program, regardless of what his former team is achieving (or the weather for that matter). That in and of itself is somewhat impressive because Arizona may win a national title in two-plus months.
“I've certainly had my days where I've been frustrated,” Whitford said bluntly. “But I've said this from day one: I know that we can really win (at Ball State). We can really win. The reason that I really came after this job is because I feel like we can really win and we can one day be hanging (championship) banners on a consistent level.
“My belief in that hasn't changed one bit. Not one bit.”