Ball State hoops are really good now, but just wait until next year

Ball State forward Brachen Hazen motions to a teammate during a practice earlier this season at Worthen Arena in Muncie. (By Tom Davis of News-Sentinel.com)
K.J. Walton
Ball State men's basketball coach James Whitford watches his team during a practice earlier this season at Worthen Arena in Muncie. (By Tom Davis of News-Sentinel.com)
Ball State forward Brachen Hazen, right, positions for a rebound against teammates Blake Huggins, center, and Kyle Mallers during a practice earlier this season at Worthen Arena in Muncie. (By Tom Davis of News-Sentinel.com)
Ball State forward Brachen Hazen looks to pass to a teammate during a practice earlier this season at Worthen Arena in Muncie. (By Tom Davis of News-Sentinel.com)

The vibe surrounding the Ball State men’s basketball program is certainly gaining momentum in wake of the Cardinals’ 80-77 win at Notre Dame earlier this week and for good reason.

Ball State is a very good team that should contend for a Mid-American Conference title. However, if you think the Cardinals are good this year (and they are), just wait until next season.

“The whole objective,” fifth-year Cardinal coach James Whitford said prior to this season, “is to have sustainability.”

Ball State has been consistently good for the past two seasons. Whitford’s teams have won 42 games combined during that time after winning just 12 in his first two seasons in Muncie.

The Cardinals have been very solid this season, which was accentuated by the win in South Bend, and due to tremendous recruiting by Whitford and his staff, there is no reason as to why this program should slow down next year.

Whitford signed high school wings Jarron Coleman (6-foot-5, Cathedral High School) and Kani Acree (6-foot-6, Carbondale (Ill.) Community High School) last month, but over the summer he added a pair of Southeastern Conference transfers that will make an immediate impact in 2018.

Former Arkansas player Brachen Hazen and Missouri athlete K.J. Walton each transferred to Ball State following last season and those two will join nine other returning Cardinals to form a roster that should absolutely be among the best and deepest in the MAC.

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

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Hazen is a former Indiana All-Star from Columbia City High School that will bring size (6-foot-8) and athleticism to the wing and front court for the Cardinals.

He played in 14 games for the Razorbacks and will immediately compete with current Cardinals Tahjai Teague and Kyle Mallers for minutes at the four and three spots, respectively.

“One of the things that we want Brachen to work on,” Whitford said of this redshirt season, “is to continue to gain weight and get stronger, which he had started to do in Arkansas.”

Hazen gained 15 pounds as a freshman and Whitford wants him to repeat that this season from his current 215 pounds.

While he is doing that work in the weight room, Whitford also has expectations for Hazen in the gym.

After playing just 42 minutes last season and making only one shot, Whitford envisions a much bigger offensive role for Hazen next season.

“We really want him to develop his ability to shoot,” Whitford said. “He is certainly a capable shooter, but to me, his future is as an elite pick-and-pop player. He is a great athlete, he jumps great, and he’s a smart player.”

“For him to become elite he has to become an elite shooter and that really opens up his game.”

While Hazen was used sparingly at Arkansas, Walton was a key player for the Tigers.

Over the past two seasons, the 6-foot-3 guard started 24 games and showed ability.

“K.J. fit just what we needed,” Whitford said. “He is a really good player, he is a wing, and he had experience.”

The Cardinal coaches were recruiting several high school players when Walton announced that he was leaving Missouri, and Whitford said that his staff immediately stopped recruiting the younger players and focused solely on Walton.

The former Indiana All-Star out of Brownsburg High School will help alleviate the graduation of Sean Sellers, Francis Kiapway and Jeremie Tyler.

“We were certainly all in on him as soon as he became available,” Whitford said, “because of ability, character, fit, need, in everyway I thought he made sense.”

Ball State will return a ton of experience next season in center Trey Moses, Teague, Mallers, forward Zach Gunn, and guards Jontrell Walker, Tayler Persons and Ishmael El-Amin from a program that very well may win 20 games and advance to the postseason for the third straight season.

“It just feels good,” Whitford said. “It gives you strength; it gives you confidence that we can continue to be good. Some years you are going to hit the Powerball and some years you’re not, but you’ve got to be in the conversation every year.”

“That is really the goal.”

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

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