James Whitford completed his fifth season as the Ball State men’s basketball head coach in 2017-18, continuing to lead a resurgence in the Cardinals’ program.
Over the past three years, BSU has averaged more than 20 wins per season, won two division championships and knocked off a top-10 team for the first time in 16 years. The Cardinals and Buffalo are the only teams to win at least 10 Mid-American Conference games in each of the past three seasons.
Whitford’s teams in 2015-16 and 2016-17 surpassed 20 wins and earned shares of the MAC West Division championship. The program had not achieved the first of those feats in consecutive seasons since the early 1990s and had not accomplished the second in back-to-back years in the league’s divisional history (since 1998).
Ball State played in the postseason in each of those campaigns with trips to the CIT, including a quarterfinal appearance at the end of the 2015-16 season. That berth marked the Cardinals’ first trip to the postseason since 2002.
In 2017-18, Whitford led Ball State to a 19-13 (10-8 MAC) record and a second straight first-round bye in the MAC Tournament. The campaign was highlighted by an 80-77 win at Notre Dame when the Fighting Irish were ranked No. 8 in the USA Today Coaches Poll and No. 9 by the Associated Press. The victory, which came during a nine-game winning streak, was the third in program history over a top-10 team, the first since the 2001 Maui Invitational and the first ever in a true road game. It was also the first by a MAC program over an AP top-10 team since the 2001 Maui event.
Ball State went 14-2 at Worthen Arena in 2017-18, finishing one shy of the school record for home court wins. BSU snapped long losing streaks against perennial MAC heavyweights Akron, Kent State and Ohio, defeating all three in the same season for the first time since 1998. The Cardinals ranked second among all MAC teams in scoring defense (73.1) and field goal percentage defense (.415) during league play.
Whitford’s 2016-17 squad went 21-13 (11-7 MAC), tying for the seventh-most wins in program history for the second year in a row. BSU ranked among the top 15 percent of teams in the country in scoring offense at 78.7 points per game. It was the program’s highest per-game scoring output in the past 40 years. The Cardinals reached the semifinals of the MAC Tournament for the first time since 2011 before falling to No. 1 seed Akron by just four points.
The 2015-16 team went 21-14 (10-8 MAC) on the strength of the league’s No. 1 scoring defense (66.8). The Cardinals shared the MAC West title after being picked last in the preseason poll. Coming on the heels of a seven-win campaign in 2014-15, Ball State’s turnaround ranked as the fourth-largest of any team in the nation. The CIT berth marked the program’s first postseason appearance in 14 years.
Whitford came incredibly close to winning MAC Coach of the Year honors for the 2015-16 season, finishing second to Akron’s Keith Dambrot. He tied Dambrot with 14 first-place votes but ended up one point behind the Akron coach in total points (111- 110).
Whitford has ushered in an era of 3-point shooting in Muncie. Four of the top five outputs from beyond the arc in program history have come during his tenure, including a school-record 319 triples in 2016-17.
The Cardinals have also been one of the MAC’s most unselfish teams under his guidance, leading the league in assists during conference play in 2015-16 (14.7) and ranking second in 2016-17 (15.1).
Whitford laid the foundation for the future at Ball State during his first two years, installing his system and ramping up the Cardinals’ recruiting efforts. His first two Ball State teams were heavy on youth, with the 2014-15 squad ranking among the 25 youngest in the country. Both teams featured the MAC Freshman of the Year, including Sean Sellers in 2014-15.
Whitford has now recruited nine Indiana All-Stars to Ball State -- Sellers, Jeremie Tyler, Tahjai Teague, Tayler Persons, Kyle Mallers, Zach Gunn, K.J. Walton, Brachen Hazen and, most recently, Jarron Coleman. The first eight of those were on the Cardinals’ roster in 2017-18, matching the most on any one college team since Purdue had eight in 1998-99. Ball State had never had more than four Indiana All-Stars on a single roster before Whitford’s tenure. In the decade prior to his arrival in Muncie, the Cardinals signed a total of three.
Sellers, who was part of Whitford’s first full recruiting class, went on to set the program’s all-time record for career 3-pointers. Persons became the first player in program history to record at least 1,000 points and 300 assists in a two-year period.
Whitford has coached six All-MAC selections, most recently Persons and Trey Moses in 2017-18. He has coached half a dozen Cardinals who have gone on to play professionally overseas, including 2017 graduates Franko House (Holland) and Ryan Weber (France).