The Dawn of the Lewis Era -- 2022-23 Ball State Men's Basketball Preview

By: Adam Altobella

On March 25, 2022, the Ball State community received long-anticipated news. After a search for a new head coach, which was rumored to have included the likes of Bonzi Wells and Tom Crean, former Director of Athletics Beth Goetz announced the department’s selection: Michael Lewis. Lewis comes to Muncie as a prep standout at the southern Indiana Jasper High School, a tenacious guard under Bobby Knight, and as an assistant coach at some of the nation’s most storied basketball programs. The Cardinals’ new head man’s resume sparked a palpable sense of excitement around the program which had consistently failed to meet postseason expectations under James Whitford. This is a new era of Cardinal ball; the Lewis era

The 2021-22 Season in Retrospect

The squad had made consistent strides toward success in 2019-20 prior to the Covid-canceled MAC Tournament, and showed flashes of brilliance during the 2020-21 season amidst Covid postponements and player quarantines. However, the team that the Cardinal faithful had hoped would continue this upward trajectory had disbanded. At the conclusion of the 2020-21 season, Ish El-Amin, KJ Walton, Jarron Coleman, and Zach Gunn all entered the transfer portal. This left gaping holes in the Cardinals’ roster for the following season.

The 2021-22 season marked coach James Whitford’s ninth year at the helm of the program, and he certainly had his work cut out for him with a greatly inexperienced team. Of the 15 men who started the season on the roster - Kani Acree and Teemu Suokas departed mid-season - 11 of them classified as either a freshman or sophomore.

The start of the 2021-22 season was certainly a rocky one, given the inexperienced bunch. On November 3, 2021, just six days before the first game of the regular season, the Cardinals welcomed the Division II Michigan Tech Huskies to Worthen Arena for an exhibition game. In front of a crowd eager for the start of the season, Ball State fell 69-70, despite a passionate scoring run at the end of the game.

After the exhibition loss to Michigan Tech, the Cardinals continued to exhibit inconsistency, and an inability to close out tight games throughout the non-conference slate. The squad finished the out-of-conference schedule with a bleak 5-7 record, though they picked up admirable wins against UMass and Indiana State.

Once the calendar flipped to a new year, Ball State experienced many of the same issues in the ever important MAC season. The Cardinals often struggled with ball movement, offensive cohesiveness, and team chemistry. They led the conference in turnovers per game, which not only affected offensive performance, but also gave plentiful fast break opportunities to opponents. There was often no legitimate alternative to Payton Sparks at the five spot, which created problems when he was out of the game. And, finally, injuries and Covid issues were also present.

Ultimately, the team finished 14-17 (9-10 in MAC play), and lost to Ohio in the first round of the conference tournament. It was certainly a disappointing season, which unfortunately resembled past seasons. The fanbase saw the writing on the wall, and understood that it was time to part ways with Whitford.

Although the 2021-22 season was riddled with disappointment and inconsistency, there is one bright spot to reflect upon: it gave freshmen Payton Sparks, Basheer Jihad, and Jaylin Sellers meaningful minutes. PBJ, as the trio is affectionately known, now has experience which will be a key factor in this season’s success.

Player Departures

Given last year’s youth, the Cardinals only truly lost one player to graduation: Blake Huggins. Huggins showed immense progression throughout his time in Muncie, but he did not see the floor much in Whitford’s system. During his final season, playing under Payton Sparks, Huggins only appeared in 16 of the team’s 31 games.

As expected with a coaching turnover, the program experienced an eventful offseason, with the majority of the roster putting their names into the transfer portal. The announcement of Coach Lewis’s hiring led some of these players back to Muncie, while others continued with the transfer process. By late spring, four players had officially parted ways with the program, and announced commitments to their new programs: Myrine Thomas (Kent State), Tyler Cochran (Toledo), Luke Brown (Stetson), and Josh Bryan (Marian).

The Cardinals will be especially affected by the departures of Thomas and Cochran, as they were both major contributors on the 2021-22 team. Last season, Thomas was third on the team in scoring with over 11 points per game, and paced the squad in blocks: Cochran was second on the team in scoring with nearly 12 points per outing, and led in steals with two per game. Since both players opted to transfer to MAC institutions, the Cardinals will see both of them twice this season

Roster Additions

Jarron Coleman

Jarron Coleman, an Indianapolis Cathedral product, played one of the best freshman seasons in Ball State program history during the 2019-20 campaign. During his breakout first year in Muncie, Coleman was named MAC Freshman of the Year, and scored the 10th most points for a freshman in program history. Although injuries plagued the 6’5" guard during the first half of his sophomore year, he impressed in his 13 games, and capped off the season with a 33 point outing in the team’s conference tournament loss to Toledo. Coleman’s future in the program looked bright, until he announced his decision to transfer to Missouri. While suiting up for the Tigers in 2021-22, Coleman averaged 8.6 points per game, and led the team in three-point shots made. Despite his success in the SEC, Coleman decided to return to Ball State after just one season. The 2019-20 MAC Freshman of the Year has now proven himself at the mid-major and high-major levels, and he should be an impact player this season.

Darian Owens-White

Darian Owens-White arrives at Ball State as a graduate student, after spending four years at Division II Wayne State University in Detroit. The 6’1" guard received many accolades during his time at Wayne State, including being named to the 2021 NABC All-District First Team, and to the 2021 All-GLIAC First Team. Owens-White graduated from Wayne State just 15 points shy of 1,000, and with the tenth most threes made in program history. Owens-White’s experience and success at the Division II level should translate well as he makes the leap to MAC competition this season.

Kaiyem Cleary

Kaiyem Cleary joins the Cardinals as the team’s only junior college transfer, and as the only international product. The Manchester, England native spent two his first two seasons of college basketball at the highly-successful Florida SouthWestern State College. While playing for the Buccaneers, the 6’6" guard was second on the team in scoring and rebounds in 2021-22. In addition to his junior college success, Cleary was a member of the UK’s FIBA U20 National Team. Cleary will begin his Ball State career as a junior, and should provide good length for the Cardinals.

Micah Bell

Hailing from Austell, Georgia, Micah Bell will be a true freshman for the Cardinals this season. While competing at Chapel Hill High School, Bell was a Georgia First-Team All-State honoree, and averaged nearly 20 points per game during his sophomore year. After a successful high school career, the 6’3" guard opted to attend Link Year Prep for a gap year, in which averaged 19.3 points per outing, and shot the three at over a 40% clip. Bell’s frame and year of prep school experience make him one of the more valuable assets in the freshman class.

Jack Futa

Jack Futa will suit up for the Cardinals this season as a true freshman, after completing a successful high school career at South Bend St. Joseph High School. As a junior, the 6’5" guard was an integral part of the Indians’ postseason run to the IHSAA Semi-State round. As a senior, Futa averaged 9.5 points per game, 5.0 rebounds per game, and 1.4 steals per game. Futa will have competition at his position for his first few years in Muncie, but his size could provide him an edge.

Quincy Adams

Although a native of Frisco, Texas, Quincy Adams comes to Muncie after playing his senior season of high school basketball for Hamilton High School in Chandler, Arizona. The move proved to be beneficial for Adams, as his final year in high school was by far his most successful: he was an Arizona All-State and 6A All-District selection, and he averaged 20.5 points per game for a team that made a deep tournament run. Adams will bring a strong playmaking presence and imposing size to the guard rotation this season.

Coaching Additions

Michael Lewis

Just weeks after James Whitford was relieved of his duties, Michael Lewis was named as the 20th head coach of Ball State men’s basketball. "Basketball in our state is personified in Michael Lewis," former athletic director Beth Goetz said when introducing the new head coach. Goetz’s remarks could not be more apt. Lewis’s roots to the state’s rich basketball history are deep, to put it mildly. He was an Indiana All-Star at Jasper High School, then an All-Big Ten guard for Bobby Knight’s Indiana Hoosiers. His experience and connections at all levels of Indiana basketball will serve the program incredibly well. In addition to Lewis’s success on the hardwood in the state of Indiana, he assumes the position after spending twenty seasons as an assistant coach, most recently at UCLA. Expectations will be high for Coach Lewis as he takes over the program in 2022-23.

Lou Gudino

Lou Gudino, a Clinton, Indiana native, was announced this offseason as associate head coach, Lewis’s second-in-comand. Gudino joins Lewis’s staff with 24 years of college coaching experience. Well versed in mid-major coaching, Gudino held assistant coaching positions at New Mexico State, Indiana State, Louisiana Tech, and Witchita State. At Witchita State, his most recent destination, Gudino helped lead the Shockers to success in the program’s first seasons in the American Athletic Conference.

Jamal Meeks

A fellow Hoosier basketball alumnus, Jamal Meeks joins Lewis’s team as an assistant coach. Meeks’s stops as an assistant coach have come at Bowling Green, Butler, and Monmouth. During his seven year stint at Monmouth (2015-2022), he assisted in recruiting for a program that experienced consistent success in the MAAC. Meeks’s playing experience and recruiting prestige will undoubtedly serve the Cardinals well.

Bill Comar

Making the move from Bloomington, Bill Comar will serve as the special assistant to the head coach after spending time in basketball administration during Archie Miller’s stint as Indiana’s head coach. In addition to his service for the Hoosiers, Comar has experience in basketball administration at Miami (Ohio), Loyola Chicago, Xavier, and Dayton. Comar will serve the program in an impactful, behind-the-scenes role.

Although Coach Lewis assembled an almost entirely new coaching staff, assistant coach Ben Botts, and graduate assistants Bo Calhoun and Corby Mertens were retained from Whitford’s staff.

Projected Lineup

  • Damarius Jacobs

  • Luke Bumbalough

  • Jarron Coleman

  • Jalen Windham

  • Payton Sparks

Preseason Superlatives and Awards

  • Most Valuable Player: Payton Sparks

  • Freshman of the Year: Micah Bell

  • Sixth Man of the Year: Jaylin Sellers

  • Most Improved Player: Basheer Jihad

  • Player to Watch: Darian Owens-White

Notable Non-Conference Games

  • @ Indiana State (11/12)

  • Baha Mar Hoops Nassau Championship (11/25-27)

    • Participating teams: Vermont, Missouri State, UNC-Wilmington, North Texas, San Jose State, Oakland, and Long Beach State

  • vs. Illinois State (12/17)

    • Indy Classic; played at Gainbridge Fieldhouse

This post was submitted by one of our esteemed readers and does not necessarily reflect the opinions or thoughts of Hustle Belt or SB Nation.