It’s been more than 20 years since the Ball State Cardinals last played in the NCAA Tournament. The Cardinals haven’t been to the Big Dance since 2000 and haven’t played in the postseason since a trip to the CIT in 2017. But this year could be different. Behind first-year coach Michael Lewis, who has become a serious contender for MAC Coach of the Year honors, the Cardinals have put together an impressive season. If you want to bet on March Madness at Betway IN, the Cardinals are a legitimate contender to win next week’s MAC Tournament and snap an NCAA Tournament drought that’s over two decades old. While the MAC isn’t short on quality teams, let’s look at the biggest reasons why the Cardinals should be optimistic about their chances in the MAC Tournament.
Getting a Bye
Ball State’s regular-season record has been more than good enough to secure a first-round bye in the MAC Tournament. That will give the Cardinals an extra day of rest and give them at least one game in which they will be the obvious favorite to win. As long as Ball State can avoid an upset in the quarterfinals, the Cardinals won’t have to worry about playing one of the elite teams in the MAC until at least the semifinals.
In other words, Ball State can quickly turn this into a four-team tournament rather than a 12-team tournament, increasing their chances of winning the whole thing. As we’ll see, even when the MAC Tournament reaches the semifinals, Ball State is more than capable of taking down the league’s best teams.
Beating the Big Boys
Despite a somewhat uneven finish to the regular season, the Cardinals have proven this season that they can beat anyone in the MAC. In early January, Ball State opened conference play by beating Toledo on the road. The Rockets have gone on to become the best team in the conference. The Cardinals out-rebounded Toledo by 20 in that game, showing that they can go toe-to-toe physically with any team in the conference.
Ball State also scored a win over Akron, another team ahead of them in the MAC standings, while suffering just a four-point road loss against the Zips in the penultimate game of the regular season. Those wins over Toledo and Akron will give the Cardinals the confidence that they can beat anybody they play during the MAC Tournament.
While the Cardinals are rolling into the MAC Tournament with a first-year coach, that shouldn’t preclude them from winning it. This might be Lewis’ first March Madness as a head coach, but it’s far from his first rodeo. He played at Indiana under legendary coach Bob Knight with the Hoosiers going to the NCAA Tournament all four seasons he was in college. Lewis can surely relate to the mindset of his players in March and have them ready to play their most important games of the season.
Perhaps more importantly, Lewis has spent nearly two decades as an assistant at top programs, learning from proven coaches, and experiencing March Madness as an assistant. He worked under former Butler coach Brad Stevens and has spent the last three seasons as an assistant to Mick Cronin at UCLA. Lewis was a part of the UCLA staff when the Bruins made a surprising run to the Final Four in 2021, giving Ball State’s coach a clear understanding of what it takes to win in March.
Conference tournaments are notoriously tricky because one bad game from a team’s star player can mean the end of the season. However, with four players who average at least 12 points per game, that should be a problem the Cardinals can avoid during the MAC Tournament. Jarron Coleman is Ball State’s leading scorer at 14.5 points per game while Demarius Jacobs is fourth at 12.2 points per game, a remarkably small gap between the leading scorer and the fourth-leading scorer.
If one of Ball State’s leading scorers has a bad game, the other three are more than capable of picking him up. It also gives the Cardinals four players who can deliver an extraordinary performance on any given night and carry Ball State to win. That depth and balanced scoring will make the Cardinals a tough out in the MAC Tournament and a serious contender to win the tournament and reach the Big Dance.
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