Franko House and the other players on the Ball State men’s basketball team who endured lean seasons the past two years are on a mission. They’re out to prove this isn’t the same old, same old Cardinals.
So when presented a challenge Saturday in the form of playing against one of the top mid-major programs in the nation, Ball State responded in a fashion that might turn some heads.
In the process, they made a statement.
“The program is turning around,” said House, a junior forward. “We’re getting better players and people are buying in to coach Whit’s offense and defense. The culture we’re building around here is getting way better, and it’s good for our program.
“We know we have a lot of players on this team who can step up and make big plays. We all have confidence in our teammates. We’re just more together. On the court, everyone knows what the other person’s strengths are, and we try to piggy-back off that.”
Those qualities came out against Valparaiso (6-2), the preseason Horizon League championship favorite that returns 11 players (all five starters) from last year’s conference title team that won 28 games and played in the NCAA Tournament.
Undeterred by that résumé, Ball State (5-2) led for the final 19 minutes of the first half on the way to a 29-23 cushion at the break. The Cardinals pulled away from a 37-37 tie with 14:20 left in the game and never trailed the rest of the game.
“It was a really, really good win,” Cardinals coach James Whitford said. “It’s something more to build on. It’s a building block. It’s a piece to the puzzle. We have to make sure as a team and a program that we continue to lay these pieces.
“When you lay enough of them, then you’ve really accomplished something. Right now, we’re obviously still in the process of laying enough of them, but this is certainly a really big piece for us.”
Further proof of how far the program had fallen and where it appears to be headed now is in the Cardinals’ current four-game winning streak. Ball State has had only eight other streaks at least that long since the 2002-03 season – and the longest was a seven-game run in 2010-11.
“They’ve definitely improved tremendously (this year),” Valparaiso coach Bryce Drew said. “Obviously any time you get a home game you’re excited, and they played like they really wanted to play today. That’s a credit to them and their coaching staff.”
Ryan Weber, in his first season on the court with the Cardinals after sitting out last year as a transfer from Youngstown State, said the win was a confidence-booster.
“Every game we play is kind of a gauge of where we are at that point in time,” he said. “We just want to keep getting better and play our best ball by the time the MAC season comes around.”
House and senior forward Bo Calhoun were instrumental in the Cardinals building – and keeping – a lead during the game.
Calhoun, who had never made more than two 3-point field goals in a game and was 1-for-11 this season, hit three 3’s in the first seven minutes.
“The way they were playing their defense at first allowed me to get some open shots,” Calhoun said. “It felt good (to hit them) … I’m not going to lie.”
Calhoun eventually fouled out with 49 seconds to play, but not before he scored a team-high 15 points and grabbed five rebounds.
Calhoun, House and Weber had a difficult defensive assignment dealing with Valparaiso’s inside game that included players who were 6-foot-10, 6-9 and 6-8.
House fouled out with 6:01 to play after getting 14 points and eight rebounds. Weber had seven points and seven rebounds while finishing with four fouls.
“(House) was great – he and Bo, especially to start the game,” Whitford said. “Those two guys have gotten so much better. Looking at where they were (in the past), they’ve made great strides and are playing with great confidence.”
With the three bigs dealing with fouls, the Cardinals relied more heavily on freshman forward/center Trey Moses. He responded with a season-high seven points, four rebounds and a season-best three blocked shots.
Moses scored Ball State’s final two baskets. His 12-footer in the lane gave the Cardinals a 66-63 lead with 1:38 to play. He then caught a slick bounce pass off a drive by Jeremiah Davis to score a layup for a 68-64 cushion with 20.7 seconds to go.
“He was outstanding, and not just because he had two big buckets down the stretch,” Whitford said in assessing Moses. “He also really impacts the rim. He had big blocked shots.
“As you play against better and better teams, what good teams have is size. As a freshman, Trey shows he can impact the rim defensively.”
Ball State did have trouble containing Valparaiso forward Alec Peters, a first-team All-Horizon League selection as a sophomore last season.
He scored 28 points against Ball State, hitting 5-of-9 3-pointers, including two in the final 10 minutes to keep the Crusaders close. The Cardinals switched on all pick-and-rolls with Peters, but they lost defensive responsibility on him several times in that transition.
“When they came off the pick-and-roll and threw it back to him on that trade action, that hurt us,” Whitford said. “I think he got four of his five 3’s on that action. They did a good job of trying to exploit what we were doing.”
Davis provided a good floor game for the Cardinals with six assists and just two turnovers. He has 14 assists in his past two games.
He had 14 assists in the first five games.
“He’s driving to pass,” Whitford said of the bump in assists for Davis. “They’re denying passes to (the wings) and that opens it up for him. Driving to pass is what a good point guard should do, and six assists to two turnovers is huge.”
Davis also scored 10 points and had five rebounds.
The Cardinals will be at home again at 7 p.m. Tuesday against IUPUI.