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Know Your Non-conference Opponent: Ball State

The sixth of seven games against state schools sees Xavier host the pride of Muncie, Indiana.

NCAA Basketball: MAC Conference Tournament - Toledo vs Ball State Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

After Xavier’s toughest (and only) true road game of the non-conference season and before the crucible that is the Crosstown Shootout, it makes sense that the Muskies could use a breather. That is - ideally - what the game against Ball State will serve as. Enough competition to not be another day of practice, but against an opponent that is going to be solidly in quad 4 by the time Selection Sunday rolls around.

The Cardinals were not great last year; they didn’t suffer any huge pauses from Covid and were able to get 23 games in, but they only won 10 of them and managed to go 0-7 in KenPom tier A and B games. They were a respectable 6-5 in the middle of January, but they nose dove from there, closing 4-8 and falling to Toledo in OT in the first round of the MAC tournament. They were up 5 in the extra period of that game before surrendering a 12-2 run from which they didn’t have time to recover.

In the head seat is James Whitford. If you recognize that name, get help it’s probably because he’s a former Sean Miller assistant who spent four years under Miller at Xavier before following him to Arizona. In his 8 years at the helm, he’s 118-131 (60-83). His teams have played solid defense, generally eschewing chasing turnovers in favor of forcing tough shots both inside and outside the arc. Excluding last year, he has made steady progress in forging effective defensive units, peaking two seasons ago at 37th in the country in adjusted defensive efficiency.

His offenses have been bad. The tempos have bounced all over, but the results have been pretty similar in that they’ve been bad. Never has he put a team in the top 150 in the country in adjusted offensive efficiency and only twice has he even gotten into the top half. His teams have turned the ball over too much and done poorly on the offensive glass; combined with mediocre shooting, that’s a recipe for poor outputs. Like his tempo, he has switched up how much his teams shoot from beyond that arc - ranging from 11th in the country to 316th. Credit him for having the guts to tinker, but he has yet to find the right formula.

Key departures

Leading scorer KJ Walton is out the door, having used his Covid year to snag a sixth season of competition at the collegiate level and using it to transfer to Akron. He also led the team in rebounding and usage rate, posting a game line of 16.4/5.9/1.2. Second-leading scorer Ishmail El-Amin - notable to fans of a certain age for being Khalid’s son - took his game line of 16.2/3.0/2.9 and team-leading 53 made threes to URI.

Jarron Coleman completes that hat trick of high-scoring guards moving on from Ball State. He averaged 13.8/5.2/3.2, shot 43% from behind the arc, and won MAC Freshman of the Year. He’s going to be suiting up for Missouri this season. Forward Brachen Hazen breaks the pattern in that he’s not a guard and didn’t transfer, but he was the team’s fourth-leading scorer and second-leading rebounder last year as a senior. He chose to move on with his life rather than using an extra year of eligibility.

Attrition was brutal for the Cardinals. Just in those four players, 56 of the team’s 75 points per game have disappeared. All four were eligible to return to Ball State and chose not to.

Key returnees

Hey, plenty of minutes open now! Guard Luke Bumbalough averaged 7.3/2.4/2.8 last season on an unimpressive .376/.358/.581 shooting line. He’s a 6’1” catch-and-shoot guy who took more than twice as many shots from deep as he did from inside the arc last year. Joining him in returning is 6’8” forward Miryne Thomas. He averaged 7.3/5.1/1.1 and shot 25-56 (44.6%) from behind the arc. He is the team’s leading returnee in both rebounding and three-point shooting.

Nobody else coming back averaged even 4 PPG, but guard Kani Acree got 3 starts and decent minutes despite shooting .298/.217/.840. A 6’6” rising junior, he’s a solid rebounder who figures to have a shot at good minutes on the wing. Some combination of guard Jalen Windham (3.6 PPG), center Blake Huggins (2.7 PPG, 2.5 RPG), and center Ben Hendricks (2.2 and 2.1) is probably going to have to fill some minutes.

Incoming players

Stepping into some of the gap is guard Tyler Cochran, who averaged 15.5 and 7.3 for a sincerely bad Northern Illinois team last season. He’s a stout 6’2”, 220. He does all his damage from inside the arc and posted good steal numbers for the Huskies.

Also coming in is 6’2” guard Demarius Jacobs, who averaged 4.9 PPG last season at Saint Louis. He had been a key piece in the 2020 Billikens squad before taking a step back last season. He’s a career 36% shooter from deep and, like Cochran, has good career steal numbers.

Outlook

Whoof. After steadily hanging around in the mid-100s in the KenPom for a few years, Ball State is going to take a big step back this season. Their roster has been gutted by attrition, and the replacements figure to be uninspiring in comparison. It’s tough to lose top guys and it’s tough to integrate new players, and doing both at the same time is going to make it very hard for the Cardinals to keep their heads above water.