Ball State coach James Whitford knows his way around UD Arena.
In 1995, when he was a first-year administrative assistant at Miami University, his team beat Arizona in the first round of the NCAA tournament in Dayton. He spent 11 seasons at Miami, the last nine as an assistant coach, coaching against the Flyers at UD Arena five more times. Then Whitford spent four seasons as an assistant coach at Xavier, visiting UD Arena every season.
On Friday, Whitford will bring a team to UD for the first time as a head coach. The Cardinals play the Dayton Flyers at 7 p.m. in the season opener for both teams.
“I have a lot of memories in the building,” Whitford said. “When you think about Dayton basketball, nothing stands out more than the fan base.”
Dayton has won 12 straight season openers and leads the all-time series against Ball State 5-1, but this will be a dangerous game. Ball State won a total of 12 games in Whitford’s first two seasons and rebounded with 21-14 and 21-13 records the last two seasons.
Whitford’s fifth Ball State team has a chance to be his best. It returns 70 percent of its scoring and four starters. The Cardinals received one top-25 vote in the Associated Press preseason poll from Seth Davis, of The Athletic.
“We have to gel together,” he said, “but our roster is very comparable (to the last two seasons). We lost two good ones, but we return a lot and we have a really good point guard. The newcomers are all good.”
Ball State lost two of its top three scorers, Franko House (13.4 points per game) and Ryan Weber (9.6). It returns its top scorer, point guard Tayler Persons (15.5), who made the All-Mid-American Conference West Division preseason first team.
Persons scored 13 points Monday in a 91-67 exhibition victory against St. Francis (Ind.). Guard Jontrell Walker, a transfer from Incarnate Word who sat out last season, led the team with 14 points.
Trey Moses, a 6-foot-9 junior center who led the team in rebounding last season (8.3), missed the game with a hamstring injury.
“I do think he’ll play Friday,” Whitford said. “That depends on how he looks Wednesday and Thursday. He’s a big part of our team. Getting him in the mix is very significant.”
Whitford is close friends with former Dayton coach Archie Miller, but he said this game was schedule after Miller left for Indiana. Whitford coached with Miller’s brother Sean at Xavier and Arizona. Whitford and Archie coached together under Sean from 2009-11 at Arizona.
Whitford reached out to Miller in August when Ball State redshirt sophomore Zach Hollywood died. His death was ruled a suicide. Ball State will wear his number on their jerseys, Whitford said, though probably not until their home opener against Stony Brook on Nov. 17.
Dayton was dealing with tragedy itself a year ago at this time because of the death of center Steve McElvene in May 2016.
“We’ve had a lot of adversity frankly,” Whitford said. “I’m really proud of the way the guys have handled it. We’ve been a very mature group. Guys’ hearts are in the right place. I feel we’re very close as a team.”
Ball State at Dayton, 7 p.m., Spectrum Sports, FM 95.7, AM 1290