The leaves are falling, the temperature is dropping and Worthen Arena is rocking. That means one thing.
Men’s basketball is back.
With the hire of head coach Michael Lewis who, in spite of his extensive assistant coaching career, is in his first year as head coach, and the return of two former Mid-American Conference (MAC) Freshman of the Year winners, all eyes are on the Cardinals this season.
Redshirt junior guard Jarron ‘Boogie’ Coleman transferred to the University of Missouri after the 2020-21 season where he started 21 games for the Tigers. Now, he’s back with experience to bring to his teammates.
“At Mizzou, I learned that the talent ain't really too much of a difference, so I really just wanted to bring back that we should have no fear no matter who we play,” Coleman said. “We are just as talented as any team out here, so I just want us to have no quit and no fear in us.”
Coleman was named 2020 MAC Freshman of the Year after a stellar freshman campaign where he led the MAC in freshmen scoring in the postseason. The next season, he continued to lead the Cardinals offense, scoring his career-high of 33 points against Toledo in March 2021.
Upon his return, Coleman admitted the fans and new teammates made him glad he came back.
“Honestly, [it’s] better than I expected, you know, just coming back, seeing new faces with the team and all that,” Coleman said. “It’s fun seeing the fans and fans that I knew from before, it kind of brought the home feeling to it.”
Reigning MAC Freshman of the Year and sophomore center Payton Sparks is back after entering the transfer portal this past offseason. He was named to the preseason All-MAC First Team. Sparks explains that he only wants to improve.
“[This season is about] not being complacent, just working hard. I just want to get better every day, and I want to be the best that I can be for the team,” Sparks said. “I feel like a big contributor to the team. I just want to help us to be better defensively, better offensively and just be better all around, just help my teammates as much as I can.”
For Sparks, the Ball State fans are really important to the team and its success.
“Fans are great. I mean, it gives us a lot of energy,” he said. “They give me a lot of energy going out there, getting a dunk and hearing them go crazy and giving the team a spark. It just feels amazing to be back.”
As the new Cardinals’ head coach, Lewis comes from a decorated background and has goals for the program.
“We want to help build this program back to what it was when I was coming up, when I was in high school, competing for the MAC championships,” Lewis said. “There’s no reason why this university is not doing that.”
Lewis’ players described him as “aggressive, but in a good way.”
“He's straightforward. He doesn't sugarcoat anything,” junior guard Luke Bumbalough explained. “He's gonna call you out on whatever it is and just be upfront with you.”
This season, Bumbalough said Lewis gave him a new role as a leader for his team and steps into it without questions.
“[Lewis] told me that my next step is bringing guys together,” Bumbalough said. “When things are going bad, whether it's dead ball or timeout, just make sure the guys hear my voice on offense [and] defense.”
Coleman shares Bumbalough’s belief in Lewis’ coaching and looks forward to how he progresses through the season.
Coleman sees how Lewis is teaching the team on how to win games, and Coleman sees the advantages of learning early compared to past coaches.
“He's a great coach, and he knows what he's doing for it to be his first year, and it's gonna get even better,” Coleman said.
With an average of 16.3 points through three games, Coleman is third on the team in shooting efficiently from the field and the perimeter (44 percent). Sparks is continuing his good play from last season with an average of 14 points through three games along with an average of 6.7 rebounds.
After months of practicing and competing against one another, the Cardinals have now been able to translate this into games. The mindsets of the players this season have been shaped by Lewis, and he is proud of his players for buying into his plans for the team.
“Expectations and accountability [have] risen around here, and I’ve gotta give these guys a lot of credit for not balking at us when we said, ‘Here we are, let’s go have a good basketball program,’” he said.
Bumbalough expressed his gratitude that the Cardinals have found a chemistry amongst themselves, and it shows in the team's ball movement.
“We have really good team chemistry like everyone, you know, loves everyone right now.” Bumbalough said. “The beginning, obviously we were just feeling each other out, but at this point, if someone's in the wrong, we're gonna call them out on it.”
The Cardinals have been sharing the ball pretty well, averaging 14.3 assists per game. In the first game, six different players finished in double figures with almost every player scoring.
Senior guard Demarius Jacobs has been leading the team and runs the offense. Early in the season he is averaging 14.3 points and dishing out a team high 13 assists.
Sparks echoes Bumbalough’s belief, adding all the guys work together and add something different to the team.
“We've been building camaraderie as a team,” Sparks said. “We've brought in a lot of new guys, different guys bring different strengths to the locker room, and it's been great.”
The first few games of the season have shown the signs of a winning culture being built for the Cardinals, with high energy from the bench, a defensive presence and sharing the ball.
Contact Derran Cobb with comments at email@example.com or on Twitter @Derran_cobb.