Saturday, January 26, 2002

After fast start, Ball State's not slowing

Cards lead MAC's Western Division

By Ian Duthie
Enquirer contributor

        OXFORD — In college basketball, consecutive games against Kansas, UCLA and Duke can be intimidating. Ball State opened the season with such a challenge, in the Maui Invitational, and the Cardinals more than held their own.

        Ball State shocked then-No.4 Kansas 93-91 and then-No.3 UCLA 91-73 before succumbing to No.1 Duke 83-71 in the championship game. The Cardinals' early success catapulted Ball State to its highest ranking ever, No.15.

        “We played well and showed the quality of basketball that mid-majors can play when given the opportunity,” Ball State coach Tim Buckley said.

        The Cardinals weren't finished with the nation's elite, with narrow losses against ranked teams Oklahoma State, Indiana and Butler. They no longer are ranked in the Top 25 but have the 34th most difficult schedule in the country according to the Sagarin Ratings.

        Ball State has all but punched its ticket for the NCAA Tournament, according to Miami coach Charlie Coles, whose RedHawks will attempt to break a two-game losing streak when they play the Cardinals at 3p.m. today at Oxford. Miami has beaten Ball State nine straight times at Millett Hall and won both matchups last season.

        The Cardinals, the leaders of the Mid-American Conference's Western Division, are 32nd in the latest RPI rankings; the next-ranked MAC team is 56th (Bowling Green).

        “If they don't collapse in the conference, they deserve to make the tournament. They can go 12-6 (in conference) and still earn an at-large bid,” Coles said, referring to the Cardinals' chances if they are unable to win the conference tournament and earn the automatic bid.

        Ball State (13-5, 6-1 MAC) has won six straight MAC games after losing its opener 81-54 at Kent State.

        “We know the strength of the league and the importance of every next game,” Buckley said. “We hope we learned from our preconference schedule while we realize the most important game is now Miami.”

        The season is a different story for Miami (7-11, 4-3 MAC), which is struggling to find consistency. “Right now we are not playing real hard,” Coles said. “I am just trying to get our guys to focus on playing hard all the time.”

        Ball State plays an uptempo, run-and-gun style that makes them the highest-scoring team in the MAC, with an average of 80.1 points a game. Miami is last in the league in average scoring at 62.6 points but doesn't plan to slow down today's game.

        “We have to find a rhythm in our game,” Coles said. “We are not good enough to run the shot clock down, make shots consistently and expect to stay with Ball State, who makes you play to their speed and can score a hundred points.”

        Ball State's Patrick Jackson (18.2 ppg), Chris Williams (15.4) and Theron Smith (18.8) rank among the top 14 scorers in the MAC. Williams, who transferred from Loyola-Chicago, has 48 3-pointers, and Smith leads the league in rebounding, averaging 11.4 a game.

        Alex Shorts, the RedHawks' leading scorer, has been slowed by foul trouble and poor shooting (39 percent). Today, for the first time this season, he will not start; Eugene Seals will take his place after getting 12 points and 16 rebounds in Miami's 78-70 loss at Northern Illinois Tuesday.


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