Ball State doesn’t come to mind as a mid-major power. The Cardinals have not made an NCAA Tournament appearance since 2000, and haven’t won a game in the “Big Dance” since 1990 — when they made a run to the Sweet Sixteen.
To summarize Ball State’s relevance in the college basketball world: it’s been awhile.
But, the Cardinals have begun to trend in a positive direction. Under James Whitford, Ball State has recorded 21 wins both of the past two seasons. Prior to that, the program hadn’t notched a 20-win season since 2002, and hadn’t managed 10 wins in either of Whitford’s first two seasons at the helm beginning in 2013-14.
Ball State appears to have turned a corner as a program. But, can Whitford continue to build upon the team’s recent success?
The Cardinals lose a key piece of the puzzle in senior forward Franko House. House was a part of Whitford’s first recruiting class, and helped lead the push from just five wins in 2013-14 to the success of the past two years. He averaged 13.4 points per game last season, and had a career average of 5.7 rebounds per game. Interestingly enough, House is now pursuing a career in the NFL but is currently looking for a team after being released by the Bears.
However, even with House gone, Whitford returns a great deal of talent. Both All-MAC second teamer Tayler Persons and All-Defensive teamer Trey Moses are expected back. Persons led the Cardinals in scoring and assists, while Moses led the team in rebounding and blocked shots. Their respective returns mean Ball State will not only have experience, but also arguably its best players on both offense and defense back in the fold.
Joining the returners is a solid recruiting class that includes two players with three-star ratings from ESPN. Ishmael El-Amin will join a deep group of guards for Ball State next season. But, Zach Gunn, who was being recruited by Tom Crean and Indiana, may be the incoming freshman who sees the most immediate action. He should compete for some of the frontcourt minutes vacated by the departure of House.
Gunn talked to the Indianapolis Star about why he chose Ball State.
"Coach Whitford has brought this program a long way," Gunn said. "We've got an opportunity to get Ball State back to where it was, back in the early 2000's, when they were in the (NCAA) Tournament."
Whitford appears to have Ball State headed in that direction, and should have a squad capable of competing for a MAC title next season. The turmoil at Akron this offseason has created an opening at the top of the MAC, and Ball State should be among the contenders in 2017-18.
Don’t expect Ball State to go away after next season either.
Whitford has added two transfers from SEC schools in the past month. K.J. Walton joins Ball State after leaving Missouri and was a highly touted recruit coming out of high school. He returns to his home state along with Arkansas transfer Brachen Hazen. Both players will sit out next season, but will be part of a solid foundation in the years to come.
Ball State fans have had to wait quite some time for an exciting basketball product in Muncie. But, the team is poised for success both next season and in the years to follow as Whitford continues to build a solid mid-major program.