MUNICE, In. — Year after year, the race in the Mid-Atlantic Conference is one of the more exciting races to watch, and it promises to be one of the top races yet again during the 2017-18 season.
This year, 11 of the 12 teams in the MAC entered the 2018 calendar year with a winning record in conference play. All six teams from the East Division were at least 7-6, while five teams from the West Division had a record of 7-6 or better. The only team to enter the New Year below .500 were the Kent State Golden Flashes, who sit at 6-7 on the year.
On Tuesday, the Game of the Day for January 2nd features two top contenders from the West Division, as the Eastern Michigan Eagles visit the Ball State Cardinals to open up MAC play for both teams. The Eagles ended a two-game skid with a win in their last outing, while the Cardinals are one of the hottest teams in the country, having won eight straight games.
Eastern Michigan will look to exact some revenge on the Cardinals, as the Eagles lost both meetings against Ball State in 2016-17. It won’t be an easy feat, as the Cardinals are a perfect 7-0 on the year inside Worthen Arena.
Here’s what you need to know in advance of Tuesday night’s showdown between the Eagles and Cardinals.
Back in 2016-17, the Eagles lost both games to the Cardinals, falling 88-80 at home, and 79-72 on the road in Munice, IN. Tuesday marks the first of two meetings between the two teams this season, and Eastern Michigan will look to build off a win in their last outing as conference play gets underway.
Eastern Michigan opened the season with five wins over their first six games, including an 18-point road win over the South Florida Bulls. They started the season at 8-2, but dropped back-to-back games before they picked up a win over Rochester College to cap off the 2017 calendar year. The Eagles are looking to keep their winning ways going, and build off a strong non-conference slate.
Leading the way is star forward James Thompson IV, who has recorded nine double-doubles this season. Despite a streak of three games without a double-double performance, Thompson IV is averaging 16.4 points and 11.8 rebounds per game during his junior season. He has averaged a double-double in each of his seasons in the NCAA.
The Eagles have three players who are averaging at least 30 minutes of court time and 16 points per game this season. Elijah Minnie is averaging a team-high 16.5 points per game, while Paul Jackson is averaging 16.1 points to round out the group. Add in Tim Bond, who stuffs the stat sheet on a nightly basis, and the Eagles have a talented rotation that ranks with the best in the MAC.
Against a Ball State team that ranks inside the top 100 in the nation in terms of scoring offense, the Eagles will look to hold yet another team below 70 points, which they have done seven times this season.
Ball State opened the season with four road losses over a stretch of five games. They had a pair of two game losing streaks with a home win over the Stony Brook Seawolves sandwiched in the middle. Since their loss to the Bucknell Bison back on November 22nd, the Cardinals have been on quite the roll.
A win over the Indiana State Sycamores on the road on November 25th kicked off an eight game winning streak for the Cardinals, one that they will put on the line against the Eagles. Over their current eight game run, Ball State has wins over the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, Valparaiso Crusaders, and North Florida Ospreys, among others.
Leading the way has been junior guard Tayler Persons, who is in his second season with the Cardinals after transferring from the Northern Kentucky Norse. He is averaging a team-high 15.2 points per game, while also averaging 3.2 rebounds and 4.2 assists. Persons hit buzzer-beaters against both Notre Dame and Valparaiso within the same week to help keep the streak alive for the Cardinals. He is one of the top players in the MAC, and will look to keep his strong play going against the Eagles.
Persons is one of six players for the Cardinals who have played in all 13 games and average at least 7.5 points per game this season. The addition of Jontrell Walker had added another element to the offense, and while his production is down slightly from his time with the Incarnate Word Cardinals, he has the talent to go off at any given time.
Kyle Mallers (11.2 ppg, 5.3 rpg) and Tahjai Teague (10.5 ppg, 7.1 rpg) have emerged as budding stars for the Cardinals as sophomores in 2017-18. The future looks bright in Munice.
Players to Watch
Eastern Michigan – Paul Jackson
Paul Jackson is the third of three players for the Eagles who is averaging 16 or more points per game this season, but the one who flies under the radar the most. Jackson transferred to the Eagles from the Eastern Kentucky Colonels, and is having himself a breakout year in Ypsilanti. He is third on the team in scoring, averaging 16.1 points per game, while he leads the team in assists per game, with 4.7. After posting nine points in his Eagles’ debut, Jackson has recorded double-digit points in 12 straight games, and three of them have seen Jackson eclipse the 20-point mark. Against a talented back court tandem for the Cardinals, Jackson will need to be at his best yet again if the Eagles want to be the ones who end the streak for Ball State.
Ball State – Tahjai Teague
Sophomore forward Tahjai Teague has emerged as the anchor of the front court for the Cardinals, despite playing under 22 minutes per game and only being a sophomore. Teague is averaging 10.5 points and 7.1 rebounds per game this season, up from his 7.3 points and 5.8 rebounds per game as a freshman. He is a threat to go for a double-double each night out, and has two to his name this season already. With at least six rebounds in 11 games this season, Teague has an impact on both ends of the floor. He will have his hands full against James Thompson IV, and the game will likely be won in the front court. If Teague can produce at his season average on Tuesday night, Ball State should come away with the victory.
The Ball State Cardinals have had the Eagles’ number as of late, having won the last four meetings between the two programs. The last time that Eastern Michigan picked up a win over the Cardinals was back on March 3rd, 2015, during the 2014-15 campaign.
On Tuesday, the Cardinals put their eight game winning streak on the line on their home floor to open the 2018 calendar year. They have a ton of momentum, and have shown no signs of slowing down. Eastern Michigan’s defense will keep it close, but the Cardinals will push their streak to nine and open up MAC play with a strong home win.
Ball State – 81
Eastern Michigan – 74
– T. Bennett