After eight years with his mentor, Arizona Wildcats basketball associate head coach James Whitford is heading to Indiana to coach the Ball State Cardinals. Whitford is replacing Billy Taylor, who was fired after six years as the Cardinals’ head coach.
Whitford is facing an uphill battle in reconstructing Ball State. The Cardinals just finished up a 15-15 season, going 8-8 in the Mid-American Conference and falling in the first round in the MAC tournament. BSU didn’t beat a single good team all year, and back in November, they lost to Indiana by 48. Ball State struggled on offense and defense, finding no reliable shooters and no big men who could score. The Cardinals are losing their best player, PG Jauwan Scaife, though freshman Marcus Posley may be a reliable replacement as could be incoming PG Zavier Turner. Whitford, who helped develop Derrick Williams’s game as well as the other Arizona Wildcats big men, needs to hit the recruiting trail hard. But he won’t have to travel far, needing only to keep in-state talent from leaving.
Whitford knows the midwest, having spent eleven years as an assistant coach at Miami (OH), so tough work should pay off in recruiting stars to a campus with good facilities and support. But Ball State has not been very good for a very long time. The Cardinals’ last tournament appearance was thirteen years ago, when it lost to a Sweet-16-bound UCLA team as an #11 seed. Ball State’s best performances in the NCAA tournament came in 1989 and 1990, when it won games in each tournament, nearly knocking off eventual champion UNLV in the 1990 Sweet 16. Ball State hasn’t even played in a post-season game since 2002, when it played in the NIT after losing in the MAC tourney and falling off the bubble.
Arizona and Ball State have a recent history. If you remember, early in the 2011-12 season, the Wildcats and the Cardinals played at McKale. Arizona found itself down 11 points in the second half, needing a comeback spanning most of the second half just to win the game.
The next couple of years will be tough for Whitford. He is leaving Arizona, which will likely be a preseason top 10 team, preseason Pac-12 favorite, and a real threat to make it to the Final Four. This is probably the most exciting time to be an Arizona Wildcats basketball fan since 2003. Ball State is a rebuilding project, and it would be a minor miracle if Ball State could somehow even make the tournament next year. But you have to take a good opportunity when you see it, and if Whitford can figure out what has been wrong at BSU that the last three coaches couldn’t, he’ll quickly rise through the coaching ranks. It is at least clear that Ball State fans are quite excited.
As far as replacing Whitford, a number of names are being bounced around. Sean Miller’s top pick appears to be San Diego State assistant Tony Bland, who rejected UCLA and just interviewed with new USC head coach Andy Enfield. As usual, some former Arizona Wildcats’ names are being thrown around. But Miller does not seem like the kind of coach who will hire a former player just to have a former player on the staff. Javier Morales has suggested that Luke Murray, former graduate assistant, who has been an assistant coach since graduating in 2010, could be in line, but Murray doesn’t have the necessary resume to join a staff like Arizona’s, especially when names like Bland are being considered. There are other names on the wind as well, but expect Miller to keep the search fairly close to his vest. If Arizona doesn’t get Bland, make no expectations about who might be considered.