Fifth year head coach Billy Taylor's team hasn't made the NCAA Tournament since the 1999-2000 season, but the Cardinals could be poised to change that in 2011-12. BSU returns four starters and nine players overall from a team that finished second in the MAC West Division with a 10-6 conference record and a 19-13 record overall.
Heading into this season, the MAC media have pegged Ball State for a second place finish once again in the MAC West Division, receiving nine of 24 first place votes to fall behind Western Michigan in the preseason predictions. Of those 24 media members, three pegged the Cardinals as their MAC Tournament champions for this season.
Jarrod Jones is without question Ball State's top player, as the 6-foot-9, 234-pound senior earned preason All-MAC honors for the third consecutive season heading into 2011-12 after being named the MAC Freshman of the Year earlier in his career.
A reigning All-MAC selection, Jones averaged 14.7 points and 8.4 rebounds per game to lead all returners for BSU, and if he puts together a big senior season will likely be a NBA player next year. As a junior, Jones scored in double digits in 27 of the team's 32 games and recorded 11 double-doubles as well.
It appears Jones has picked up right where he left off in 2010-11, as in the team's exhibition against Taylor he scored 16 points, grabbed seven rebounds, dished out three assists and recorded four steals. His versatility and ability to do just about everything will be a great early season test for UA's post players, as he'll certainly be one of the top big men Arizona faces all season long.
Sophomore Matt Kamieniecki averaged just 2.9 points in 13.2 minutes for his 23 appearances as a true freshman, but this year he looks poised for an increased role. The 6-foot-7, 238-pound forward is the only non-returning starter that will be a part of Ball State's first five, and with Jones dominating the post, Kamieniecki will not have much responsibilities offensively, but will be asked to contribute on the glass.
Handling the ball for the Cardinals is the team's second preseason All-MAC selection, 5-foot-11, 185-pound point guard Randy Davis. As a junior, Davis' five assists per game ranked second in the conference, and he also led the MAC with a 87.3 percent mark from the free throw line.
He was the only member of this year's team to start all 32 games last year, averaging 9.8 points in 29.8 minutes per game. He's a terrific ball handler who will look to get it to the open man and feed Jones in the post, making it imperative for the Arizona guards to slow him down in transition and close down the passing lanes inside in half court sets.
After earning All-MAC Freshman Team honors in his first year with the program in 2010-11, sophomore Chris Bond will likely be moved into the starting lineup to start the season. The 6-foot-4, 195-pound guard appeared in 30 of the team's games last year, averaging 7.3 points and 4.3 rebounds per game, but saw those numbers increase to 9.4 points and 5.9 rebounds as a starter in the team's final 11 games.
The final starter for Ball State is one of the team's best scorers, as Jauwan Scaife's 11.2 points per game last season ranked only behind Jones on the 2010-11 team. The 6-foot-2, 190-pound junior started 31 of the team's 32 games a season ago, hitting a team high 59 threes in the process on 39.4 percent shooting from beyond the arc.
In the exhibition against Taylor, Scaife had a very complete game with 15 points, five rebounds and six assists, showing that he will likely follow up his solid junior year with a repeat performance in his senior season.
Off the bench, the Cardinals have a very capable sixth man in sophomore Jesse Berry. In his first year with the program, the 6-foot-1, 189-pound guard was fourth on the team with 8.9 points in only 24 minutes per game. He appeared in all of the squad's 32 games, and had 12 starts in his true freshman campaign.
This season, Berry looks primed for an even larger role in the Ball State offense, evidenced by his 22-point performance against Taylor in 26 minutes off the bench. He's an explosive scorer that thrives on the perimeter and in the midrange game, and the Cardinals won't skip a beat with Berry on the floor.
As a junior, Pierre Sneed appeared in 31 games and registered nine starts. The 6-foot-4, 206-pound has a big body for a guard and provides a solid, veteran presence off the bench after averaging 2.7 points and 1.5 rebounds last season.
Finally, the Cardinals will welcome a pair of freshmen into their rotation, as 6-foot-2, 183-pound guard Zeke Chapman and 6-foot-6, 253-pound Aaron Adeoye will likely make their first collegiate appearances on Sunday against Arizona.
While Valparaiso had good frontcourt but below par backcourt players, and Duquesne was very guard heavy, Ball State will present a much more balanced attack on Sunday. Jones will get all of the touches he can handle, but the Cardinals have four players on the perimeter that are very capable playmakers and scorers.
Due to that balance, BSU will likely come to McKale Center and give the Wildcats all they can handle on Sunday afternoon. Although it's the third game of the young season against a mid-major, it appears that in this three game stretch, Sean Miller has saved the best opponent for last before his UA departs for New York and a game against St. John's.