Northern Illinois at Ball State (Mid-American)
Worthen Arena - Muncie, IN
7:00 PM EST
I've probably said this before, but if you're a mid-major conference and you're smart, schedule games on Tuesday nights and Sunday afternoons. (And Friday nights, if your geographic footprint is small enough that schools can send buses out after lunch.) Plenty of prime cable TV slots available... and more importantly, you can get the good refs on their days off. Not naming names or anything, but if you want to see some serious Yackety Sax refereeing, go to a game in a historic one-bid conference on a Saturday night. Seriously.
Anyway, the MAC knows what it's doing. And of the three games on the slate tonight, our game (Buffalo at Akron) might yield the most answers about the state of the league, but this one is a great chance to check in on two schools that have dealt with enormous adversity and are putting their programs back together. Turns out that both are making solid strides.
It's hard to believe that it's almost been a year since a Valentine's Day shooting at Northern Illinois
in which six were killed and 21 wounded. In the wake of the incident, all athletic events were cancelled for a week, including NIU's BracketBusters contest. (Furthermore, assistant coach Dennis Gates led a sports ministry team to China that was in the country
when the Sichuan earthquake struck.) Against that backdrop, head coach Ricardo Patton's first year in town was marked with losses and interruptions -- the Huskies went 6-21 (3-11) in their abbreviated schedule. But things are looking up: at 5-8, NIU is one win away from last year's total, and the team won its first MAC contest of the year against Toledo in blowout fashion.
The first building block of future success is a trapping defense that's forced 16.8 turnovers per game.
When placed next to NIU's violent year, Ball State's recent adversity looks even more cheap and ridiculous than it did when it originally happened. Ronny Thompson resigned in July 2007
after 15 months on the job, in the midst of an investigation into secondary NCAA violations by the coach and his staff. Racist notes had been allegedly discovered under the coach's office door, and in the end, nobody involved came out looking too good.
Thompson's only campaign in Muncie resulted in a 9-22 mark, a school record for losses, and new coach Benji Taylor -- in from Lehigh -- exceeded that with 24 last season. BSU has already matched its win total from 2007-08 with a 6-7 (1-0 MAC) record, and won its first league game against Eastern Michigan
over the weekend. Senior Anthony Newell
, who's been there through all of this, leads the team with 15.2 ppg and 9.4 rpg.Basketball State Preview/Box