Countdown to 2015–16: James Whitford has breathed new life into Ball State
On April 6, 2013, James Whitford was named the 19th head coach in Ball State men’s basketball history. He had spent the past four seasons as an assistant on Sean Miller’s staff at Arizona, spearheading the resurgence of a proud program. He served as the recruiting and defensive coordinator in Tucson, and spent his final two years as associate head coach.
Upon Whitford’s unveiling in Muncie, Ind., Miller praised his good friend’s abilities not just as a recruiter, but as a leader. The two had coached together for years. From Xavier to UA, they kept catapulting programs into the realm of the Elite. During Whitford’s tenure as an assistant at Miami (Ohio), Wally Szczerbiak led the RedHawks to the NCAA tournament Sweet 16.
Miller had a feeling that it was a question of “when” Whitford would have Ball State making postseason appearances.
The first two seasons in Muncie have seen the requisite growing pains that come with taking over a new team. But true to Miller’s prediction, Whitford has begun assembling talent. Now, a core is growing together. That makes ‘14–15 a potentially fascinating season. Count on Ball State to start making some noise in the MAC (Mid-American Conference.)
On Thursday morning, a few days after returning from a preseason trip to the Bahamas, Whitford spoke over the phone with Alley Whoops.
Alley Whoops: You’re just back from the preseason tour of the Bahamas. What was that like?
James Whitford: Ah, it was great. There’s lots of travel that’s tough. That wasn’t tough.
AW: How beneficial will those 10 extra practices prove in a season in which you want to make a jump as a team?
JW: I think they’ll be very beneficial. In our case, despite having more returners than ever, we’re still reliant on new faces. Three of the five new faces are older guys, they’ve played college basketball before, but they’re new to us and our system.
Naiel Smith, our point guard, is going to be a really important player for us this year. He’s coming from (San Jacinto) junior college, and before that, he spent one year at Texas State. He’s still got to learn how we play. Ryan Weber, a transfer from Youngstown State, has two years of college under his belt, but whenever you sit out, there’s a bit of rust. And Nate Wells brings experience. We’ll rely so heavily on those three, so it’s going to be really important that they can contribute, along with the two freshmen.
AW: You were born in Wisconsin, and attended UW-Madison. You coached at Miami (Ohio) and Xavier. Did returning to the Midwest play a factor in your decision to take the Ball State job?
JW: Yeah, that was a huge part of it. In fact, it was probably the biggest factor. I really believe in the talent in this area, the basketball culture in this state is very strong. Traditionally in the U.S., basketball is most prevalent in urban areas, big cities. Indiana has that element, but what makes it unique is that the culture extends throughout the state. Any size of city, you name it, you’ll find good basketball, and good players. There’s really good coaching, and kids grow up with the game.
With my experience in the area, and the Ball State brand, we felt we had a really good chance of building a program by recruiting this region.
Guys like Sean Sellers (the MAC Freshman of the Year for 2014–15) and Jeremie Tyler both won Indiana state championships in high school. There’s no question that it helps to have that type of player, when you’re trying to build a program. The sign of a really good player isn’t how many points he scores; it’s how many games he helps his team win. That translates to any level.
AW How did you first meet Sean Miller? What did you learn from him while coaching at different spots?
JW: I met Sean around 1993, when he was in his first coaching job at Wisconsin. (Miller was a grad assistant at Wisconsin in ‘92–93.) I was a student manager for the team.
He was the reason I went to Miami (Ohio) as a grad assistant; he’d encouraged me to come help out. So, I’ve known him since I was 20 years old. Working with him really shaped me as a coach. I’d had experience, but never in a true “system”, which had a way of doing everything a certain way, from A-Z. I learned a tremendous amount from him.
AW: What was the foundation you wanted to create at Ball State?
JW: It was really two things we had to get up and running. An internal culture — and that can be a general term in basketball, but for our eyes, the way I describe it, it’s A: I wanted a blue-collar work ethic and a commitment to become great at your craft. You’re competing for something speical. If you’re in our program, you have to be truly committed to becoming great. That extends to how you eat, how you treat your body, how much you sleep, how much time you spend in the gym. Complete commitment — how pros live. That’s how we want to approach the game.
The other part, is we had to get the talent level up and running. That means the right talent level, plus the right type of player. We made a bigger step last year than the win-loss column showed. It was an unusual year with injuries, suspensions, academics, and distractions. I felt that, without some of those, we’d have made greater progress.
Nonetheless, we’ve made a more significant jump in Year 3, and for the first time, we have depth of talent across the board. We have three seniors, but Jeremiah Davis could be eligible for a sixth year, since he’s missed parts of three different seasons to injury. We won’t learn the NCAA’s decision until the end of the year.
AW: You’re entering your third season as a head coach. What are some of the lessons you’ve learned so far?
JW: One of them — and this is true with every assistant who becomes a head coach — is finding my own edge, for what’s important to me. I’m running this program like Sean (Miller) is running UA, but I’m not Sean Miller.
I had to find my own groove, as to the way I want to do this. Being the captain of the ship for the first time. Through trial and error, I’m more comfortable now.
The other key distinction is we have different players here, than you’d find at an Arizona. It’s a similar system, so I’ve tweaked the system to fit the players I have. I didn’t know a lot about our team when I got here two years ago, so I had to learn fast. I probably could have made better decisions in some cases.
AW: On the recruiting trail, what about Ball State has resonated most strongly with prospects?
JW: It starts with the school. Ball State has a beautiful campus, and even when you leave basketball out of the conversation, it’s grown tremendously. It’s a great destination, and that’s a really big pull. Our administration is really committed to this program.
I knew that during the job processing, but here’s a school that reaally supports men’s basketball. We have a new court and a new video board (at Worthen Arena). We’re building a practice facility that will be shared with volleyball. The administration is giving us the resources that we need to be successful. It really helps to have that support, because a recruit has to believe in me, and what I’m selling.
AW: What are some things you hope to see this team accomplish in 2015–16?
JW: We set a lot of goals, and they’re predominantly process-oriented goals — rather than measuring success in wins and losses. If you set more quantifiable goals, and you hit them, are you satisfied; and if you fall off early from them, do you give up on the season?
So, we set goals that aren’t quantifiably measurable, but more importantly, concerning the way we practice, the type of leadership shown, off court expectations. Academics. I use captains to help me set those goals.
AW: The Mid-American Conference keeps getting stronger. Does the prospect of playing in the MAC resonate with recruits?
JW: We certainly use it. One big difference between us and some other conferences (Ed. note: I mentioned the West Coast Conference as a comparison), is we don’t have the media exposure of a WCC or even a Missouri Valley Conference.
From a competitive standpoint, we’re the same. The difference is, our conference doesn’t have certain schools with resources that set them apart from the pack. In the WCC, no one can compete with BYU’s draw, in terms of attendance, or Gonzaga’s budget, with chartered flights to road games. Certain teams have to overachieve in order to compete with those programs.
In the MAC, there’s a much greater balance from a resources standpoint, so there’s a wider variety of winners. Anyone is capable of winning the league, or finishing last. What our conference really needs is one or two more years of having not just good seasons, but having someone break through in the NCAA tournament. That’ll get visibility, and more TV exposure.
And our conference is invested in basketball. No question about it.