BLOOMINGTON-Ball State's players and coaches can spin and insist and ultimately downplay the significance of tonight's match-up with No. 17 Indiana all they want, but this isn't just another game to the Cardinals.
Publicly, the message that's coming out of Muncie is that Indiana is simply the next game on the schedule, the one that falls in between Drexel and Akron, one that's only extra significance is the fact that it comes on New Year's Eve and serves as the team's final tune-up for the Mid-America Conference slate.
Asked what a victory over Indiana would mean, Ball State Coach Tim Buckley told the Muncie Star Press, "It would mean we're 5-3."
That is true, but a victory over Indiana wouldn't exactly be on par with, say, Ball State's 28-point win over Division-III Anderson or even its 21-point, season-opening win at Wright State. No, this one would mean a whole lot more.
That's why athletic department officials have made tickets available to Ball State students for free, all in an effort to keep Worthen Arena from being overrun by Hoosier backers and keeping in place the Cardinals' homecourt advantage when the contest tips off at 6 p.m.
That's why it would be wise for nonpartisan on-lookers to vacate the premises quickly should Ball State pull the upset, for fear of being engulfed by the swarm of students that will undoubtedly rush the floor to celebrate "just another victory."
While the Ball State ensemble has been sticking with the politically correct when surrounded by microphones and tape recorders, Indiana's players know that behind closed doors, everyone on the Ball State sidelines will give a little bit more Saturday night, because this game means a whole lot more.
"I can only speak from what I would think," said Errek Suhr, a graduate of Bloomington North H.S., who entertained scholarship offers from smaller schools before opting to walk-on at IU. "If I went to a smaller school in Indiana, of course I'd be gunning for the big dog."
The Indiana State loss not withstanding, Indiana remains the big dog in-state when it comes to basketball. It's the program with the national championship banners waving, one that many of the other in-state schools' players aspired to play at while growing up, only to ultimately be told they weren't quite big enough or strong enough or ultimately good enough.
That's the kind of thing that sticks in the craw of in-state players like Indiana State's Tyson Schnittker (from Lafayette) or Butler's A.J. Graves (White River Valley) or Ball State's Skip Mills (Indianapolis), all of whom want more than just another win when they face Indiana – they want to prove they were good enough all along.
By now, Indiana knows exactly what to expect from Ball State. This marks the third in-state clash of the month, all of which have taken place away from Assembly Hall. Indiana State handed the Hoosiers a surprising 72-67 setback in Terre Haute, while the Hoosiers used a late flurry to pull away from a game Butler squad by 18 a week ago at Conseco Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.
"I think this game does mean more to them, because Indiana State played as hard as anybody we've ever played," said Robert Vaden.
IU Coach Mike Davis also knows how tough these in-state clashes are, which is why he'd rather steer clear of them in the future.
"It's going to be an exciting game, because it's an in-state game, one that I really don't want to play for that reason," said Davis. "This is a dangerous game."
Truth be told, a glance at Ball State's results doesn't exactly send up red flags. Ball State is just 4-3 and is coming off a five-point loss to a Drexel team that's already dropped five games this season. Since Peyton Stovall went down with a season-ending knee injury in the season's second game, the Cardinals have failed to score 60 points against every Division I foe.
What's scary about the matchup is the fact that it's a clash against a team with a roster full of players who might be saying one thing publicly, but will play with an energy and intensity that suggests something else.
"It's an Indiana game, those guys are mostly from Indiana, so it will be just like Indiana State and Butler – they'll be coming at us," said Suhr. "We have an X on our back, and we know they'll be trying to take us out."
Just Another Game? I Don't Think So...
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