College basketball preview: Ball State Cardinals

Cardinal coach has steadily built really good program

Fifth-year Ball State University men's basketball coach James Whitford watches his team practice at Worthen Arena recently in Muncie. (By Tom Davis of News-Sentinel.com)
Ball State freshman center Blake Huggins puts up a shot between sophomore Kyle Mallers (14) and Brachen Hazen during a recent practice at Worthen Arena in Muncie. (By Tom Davis of News-Sentinel.com)
Ball State sophomore forward Kyle Mallers (background) battles with senior forward Sean Sellers for position during a recent practice at Worthen Arena in Muncie. (By Tom Davis of News-Sentinel.com)
Ball State redshirt junior guard Tayler Persons defends against freshman guard Ishmael El-Amin during a recent practice at Worthen Arena in Muncie. (By Tom Davis of News-Sentinel.com)

MUNCIE – It has taken a few years, but the vision that fifth-year Ball State men’s basketball coach James Whitford had when he was hired has come to fruition.

Whitford had several objectives when he was put in charge of the Cardinal program, and they included:

* Recruit the state of Indiana hard and well

* Establish a culture based on hard work

* Be successful on and off of the court

Four years into his tenure, Whitford can confidently check all of those things off of his to-do list.

“I like where we are,” Whitford said recently, “and I’m excited about the possibilities for this year and where I think we could be.”

Where Ball State can “be” remains to be seen, but where the Cardinals “are” is in a very good spot. Whitford’s team is experienced, talented and coming off a pair of 21-win seasons after a few years of construction.

The Cardinals will host University of Saint Francis tonight at 7 p.m. at Worthen Arena.

This is the final of seven college basketball preview stories that will be published at News-Sentinel.com.

FRONTCOURT

Whitford should feel good about the experience returning in his frontcourt, that is, if he could get his top two players to suit up.

Junior center Trey Moses and redshirt sophomore Tahjai Teague have been battling injuries throughout the preseason, and Whitford said that it has impacted his team.

“We spent most of our summer working on our defense,” Whitford said, “but the challenge for me has been that Tahjai and Trey haven’t practiced a whole lot.”

As of last week, Moses had been held out of every preseason practice due to a strained hamstring, while Tahjai has had “some issues with his knee.”

Both were effective last season and will be needed this year.

The 6-foot-9 Moses played in 33 games and nearly averaged a double-double with over nine points and eight boards per game. His impact was significant, as the Cardinals definitely were not the same team without him.

In the Mid-American Conference Tournament, Moses scored 11 points and grabbed 14 rebounds in a close win over Western Michigan. However, he was injured and couldn’t play more than 15 minutes in the following game against Akron, and the Cardinals narrowly fell 74-70 in the semifinal.

Whitford doesn’t believe the injuries are long-term situations, but he is being careful at this point.

“Both of (the players) are going to be fine, big picture,” Whitford said. “But they haven’t been in the lineup a lot. That has been the challenge of trying to get our guys ready without two really important cogs.”

BACKCOURT

The only way to describe the Cardinals’ guards is that the group is locked and loaded.

Ball State has a ton of experience among its perimeter players, and just as much talent.

“Of the seniors,” Whitford explained, “(Francis Kiapway, Sean Sellers, and Jeremie Tyler) are all having an impact. Francis, in particular, is the most vocal of those three.”

Kiapway averaged nearly 25 minutes per game last season and played in all 34 games, while Sellers (also averaged 25 minutes per game) and Tyler (20 minutes per night) were significant pieces to Whitford’s successful puzzle, as well.

However, no Cardinal guard made the statistical impact of redshirt junior Tayler Persons.

The Northern Kentucky transfer scored a team-best 15 points per game, while hitting over 41 percent of his 3-pointers.

Persons is just one of eight former Indiana All-Stars that Ball State now features on its roster.

“Because we are where these players are,” Whitford said, “it’s critical that we recruit the state well.”

Persons made an impact in his first season with the program after beginning his career elsewhere, and Whitford is hopeful that Jontrell Walker can, as well.

The 6-foot-1 guard averaged 13 points per game at Incarnate Word over two seasons and was the Southland Conference Freshman of the Year two years ago.

WINGS

Sellers has been producing for Ball State since he opened his career three years ago with a 26-point outburst at Utah. He has since settled down into a solid player for Ball State and has vastly improved defensively throughout his career.

The 6-foot-6 forward made 68 3-point shots as a junior and averaged over eight points per game.

Ball State fans know all about Sellers’ game, but what they don’t know much about is the level of impact that 6-foot-8 sophomore forward Kyle Mallers will have this season, according to Whitford.

“The one guy that has done really well in (preseason) is Kyle Mallers,” Whitford said. “He’s done really well.”

As a freshman, Whitford moved Mallers between forward positions repeatedly due to personnel issues, but he has kept him in the same role for this preseason and the former Indiana All-Star out of Carroll High School has flourished.

“I would anticipate him having a very big role all year,” Whitford said.

NEWCOMERS

There is good – and bad – news for Cardinal fans in regards to the program’s newcomers.

Freshman guard Ishmael El-Amin, forward Zach Gunn and center Blake Huggins all have the potential to evolve into very good players for the Cardinals, perhaps even this season. However, the Cardinal Nation will have to be patient for the biggest names to come to the program this season.

Whitford added transfers Brachen Hazen (forward, Arkansas) and K.J. Walton (guard, Missouri), both of whom were Indiana All-Stars.

“Having Brachen and K.J. sitting out, for me, is a breath of fresh air,” Whitford said, “because they can both really play.”

PREDICTION

The Ball State non-league schedule is incredibly challenging, but in the end, that doesn’t really matter. What Ball State fans – and Whitford – want to accomplish is two-fold.

The coach wants to win an overall Mid-American Conference title, as well as the league’s postseason tournament, which affords the program the opportunity to get into the NCAA Tournament.

“They are equally as hard,” Whitford said, “and in my eyes, equally rewarding.”

If Moses can get healthy, Ball State will be a contender to achieve those goals this season, and based on Whitford’s recruiting, for the ensuing years, as well.

If this program doesn’t win 20 games – again – this season and obtain another postseason berth, it would be shocking.

CARDINAL BITS

Bright spot for Cardinal Nation?

The perimeter play at four different positions is the strength of this team. Ball State is deep and talented along the perimeter.

Player to watch?

Kyle Mallers. Whitford already let the secret out that the 6-foot-8 sophomore will be a very important player this season.

Problem for Ball State?

Defensive play. The Cardinals weren’t very good last year, and this has been a focus ever since then by Whitford and his assistants. Until the Cardinals show they can defend consistently and well, it remains an issue.

Newcomer impact?

Jontrell Walker. He already has two years of proven ability at the NCAA Division I level.

For more on college basketball, follow Tom Davis on Twitter at Tom101010 and on Facebook at Thomas Davis.

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