Basketball: Ball State and beyond

It's no secret that the Mid-American Conference basketball divisions are not exactly balanced, and no team can attest to this more than Western Michigan. While the Broncos have gotten healthier over the past few weeks, getting starters Flenard Whitfield, Nate Hutcheson, and Demetrius Ward back to full strength, they have played arguably their best basketball of the season. Unfortunately, this is not showing itself in the win column. The Broncos (11-16, 5-7 MAC) finished 1-5 in their recent run through the strong MAC East division, defeating only last-place Miami. A closer look at the schedule, though, reveals that WMU lost to the top four programs in the conference by an average of only 3.8 points, taking Akron and Kent State to overtime and losing by just five at Ohio and two at Buffalo. Needless to say, this is a team that could use a few breaks.
Enter MAC West play. Saturday's BracketBuster loss to North Dakota State notwithstanding, WMU's second run through the West got off to an encouraging enough start with a 78-53 win over Northern Illinois. Granted, NIU is a lowly 3-22, but for a team that has experienced so many recent heartbreaking losses, the win could be a much-needed jolt of confidence when pursuing their goals down the stretch.
So what are the goals? It's worth noting that with the changes to the MAC Tournament format, winning the MAC West no longer guarantees any byes. In fact, it's highly unlikely that any West Division team earns a bye this season, so WMU is playing for a home date in the first round of the MAC Tournament, and the pride of securing at least a share of a fourth MAC West title in five years. WMU currently sits at 5-7, one game off of the 6-6 pace set by West leader Eastern Michigan. Given the volatile nature of the division, three wins in the final four games may be enough to secure a share of the division, but winning out is probably a necessity for an outright West title. Now is the time for the vaunted trio of Detroit seniors to step up. Each has shown flashes, with Mike Douglas scoring 21 against North Dakota State on Saturday, Whitfield scoring in double figures four straight games before a 5 point effort Saturday, and Ward catching fire for five threes and 18 points against NIU, but consistency has been hard to come by.
The drive begins Wednesday evening with a must-win tilt against Ball State (13-12, 4-8 MAC) at University Arena. WMU fell to Ball State 78-69 in the MAC opener. Fans may remember the Cardinals from that game as a tough, physical team led by a bona fide star in Jarrod Jones, but things have gone south for BSU since that time. The Cardinals are on a seven game MAC losing streak, and Jones has finished under his 15.8 point scoring average in five consecutive outings. The reasons for this tailspin are mysterious, but WMU must not be the team to pull them out of it.
Western Michigan 70, Ball State 55
Simply put, this is not the same Cardinal team that started 4-1 in MAC play and appeared poised to challenge the top teams in the conference. Instead, this is a team that WMU must take care of business against at home. One key is Whitfield staying out of foul trouble in order to stick to Jones down low, but the Broncos should have enough to get past BSU even without Whitfield.