Countdown to 2015–16: D.J. Balentine is ready to lead Evansville to the NCAA tournament

Photos courtesy of Evansville men’s basketball.

During D.J. Balentine’s freshman season at Evansville, he roomed on the road with Colt Ryan, a senior. Ryan would finish his career as the program’s all-time leading scorer, at 2,279 points.

From Ryan, and the rest of a standout senior class, Balentine learned the benefits — and necessity — of consistency at the high-major level. “(Colt) came to practice every day with the same mentality. He did everything like he was playing in a game,” Balentine says.

The night before games, Ryan would stretch and hydrate. The same kind of care was taken after workouts and games. Balentine has incorporated these lessons. Three seasons into his UE career, he rests at 1,766 points, 613 shy of Ryan’s all-time record. The 6–3 guard has become one of the most formidable forces in college basketball (20.1 points, 15th in DI), adept at dousing from deep (Balentine hit 74 threes in ‘14–15, at a 39% clip), or driving, drawing contact, and converting from the line. (He hit 159 free throws last season, at a 75% rate.)

Last season, he helped lead the Aces to the CollegeInsider.com Tournament championship, the program’s first championship at the DI level.

As he looks to ‘15–16, taking into account all the talent that’s back, and the experience gained, he’s thinking he’d like to go dancing on a weekday in March.

On Monday morning, Balentine took time to speak with Alley Whoops. Here’s the transcript.

Alley Whoops: Colt Ryan was one of a number of seniors on the team your freshman year. What did you take away from them?

We had a core of really good seniors my freshman season. The point guard, Troy Taylor, was a real big help. He’s from around my hometown of Kokomo, Ind., so he took me under his wing and showed me the ropes.

There were times as a freshman when conditioning is tough. It hits you hard. But Troy, Colt and Ned Cox stayed on me. They told me they’d need me, that even as a freshman, I could really help this team. I was shocked, hearing that coming from seniors. They really helped.

AW: How did you get your start in the game?

DJB: Basketball was a big thing in the family. I started playing organized ball at 5 or 6, so I’ve always been around it. My dad played high school and college ball, and my grandpa is a big fan.

I remember watching M.J. and Reggie Miller (in the 1998 Eastern Conference Finals), Reggie pushed him off at Market Square Arena and hit the game-winner in Game 4, I went nuts. I was a huge M.J. fan, but after that shot, I became a huge Reggie fan. I wear 31 because of Reggie.

AW: What was your recruitment like? When did Evansville emerge as a favorite?

DJB: When Evansville first called me, I wasn’t too familiar with them, but I heard nothing but good things, so I picked them as one of my five official visits. They always called me. It was coach Simmons, and (former UE assistant) Chris Hollender.

I took my second official visit to Evansville, and after I’d left, I wanted to commit. But I also wanted to see my third official visit. So, then I get a call at 11:30 at night, and I have an hour-long conversation with coach Hollender. He tells me that at UE, we can knock down big-school, in-state teams like Indiana, Notre Dame, and Purdue. I had a great connection with the coaches and the community there. It was the right fit.

AW: There’s an Instagram picture of you rocking a Steph Curry Davidson jersey. Is he someone you watch now?

DJB: Oh, definitely. I love watching Steph. He’s 6–3, which is around my height, about 190 pounds, so he’s not the biggest or strongest, but he gets it done. His shot is unbelievable — it’s so hard to guard. His handles amazes me, he uses it so well, to create opportunities to score. I like to do that.

I also watch other point guards, Chris Paul, using the pick and roll, and I watch the ways J.J. Redick and Klay Thompson come off screens.

Photo Courtesy of D.J. Balentine.

AW: Your freshman season at UE, you went to the CIT semifinals. This past season, you helped win that title. What groundwork was laid these past two seasons?

DJB: When we went to the CIT semis my freshman year, it was a great experience. I wasn’t too familiar with the CIT — you know about the NCAA tournament, and the NIT, and then you hear about the CIT and you think, ‘Oh, it’s not so big-time.’

But then you play in it, and it’s really fun. You’re playing on other teams’ home courts, and getting their best shots. Our ultimate goal as a team is the NCAA tournament, but there’s other tournaments, and you gain postseason experience from playing in them.

My sophomore year, we were really young, and we took our lumps (UE finished 14–19 in ‘13–14) but everybody was back for my junior year. We had NCAA tournament goals, but the CIT championship was an amazing run. Especially winning the title at home, that was crazy. My family tries to make every game, and to win that and then…I didn’t know they gave out an MVP award, and when they told me I’d been named the MVP, it was crazy. Everybody was standing up and clapping. I looked at my mom and dad, and I was just in shock. It was a great experience.

AW: That MVP award was well deserved. In the first four games of the CIT, you averaged 30 points and shot 60% — from the field and from three. Was that one of the best streaks you’ve had as a player?

DJB: Yeah. I’ve had some good runs here and there in the past two seasons, but that’s one of the most memorable. Against IPFW in the first round, I had 23 in the first half (9-of-10 FG, 4-of-5 from three). I was on a roll. We took a two-week break after our conference tournament, before the CIT began, so I got my mind and my body back right. That helped a lot.

Coach Simmons talks to me about LeBron, how he takes care of his body. I never used to take ice baths. I was terrified of them. Now, I take one the night before every game. I get stretched out almost every day by the trainers. You have to take care of your body, to make it through the season.

AW: What’s your relationship like with the UE staff? How have they challenged you as a player?

DJB: I’ve had a great relationship. I can call the coaches any time. They’ve always pushed me, made me go the extra mile. They ask me what I want out of basketball: I say, NBA. They’ve contact people about it, given me film, given me numbers.

They’ve challenged me to be a leader for this team, and I love those challenges. Going through drills in practice, like cutting on offense, if I get fouled, they never call it. Sometimes, I’ll get mad, but they’re preparing me for big-time road games, when I won’t get those calls.

AW: What’s a typical summer day for you, in terms of workouts?

DJB: A standard day: wake up about 6:30 or 7 a.m. Then, weights from 8–9. Most summer classes are online, so I can get a 15–20 min workout in before I take some time off for lunch. Then, there’s a team workout for about an hour, an hour and a half.

After that workout, I’ll go with a teammate to do some extra running on a treadmill. We’ll do two miles in there, then go shoot on the gun. At the end of the day, there’s yoga or open gym. Yoga’s usually a really good thing at the end of the day. It sounds easy, like you’re just stretching, but you’re sweating the whole time. It’s a workout.

AW: All five starters return from last season’s 24-win team. It’s a group loaded with experience and talent. How excited are you to get going in ‘15–16?

DJB: Oh man, I’m extrememly excited. When people ask me about it, I tell them this is the most excited I’ve been to play in a season. Understanding what we’ve got back, and what everybody can accomplish, I’ve got goosebumps just thinking about it.

I’m ready to get going. Our goal is the NCAA tournament, and we want to make some noise once we get there. We think we have a good opportunity to do that.

Photo courtesy of AP.
Some of Balentine’s career accomplishments — and this, through two seasons. (Photo courtesy of Evansville men’s basketball game notes)

Game of life, with a twist—and shout. Twitter: @alleywhoops

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