Ball State basketball Coach Dick Hunsaker says he discovered he was somebody the day his son asked cartoonist Jim Davis for an autograph.
Davis, who created “Garfield,” lives near the school in Muncie, Ind., and regularly attends Cardinals games. When Hunsaker’s son approached Davis, Davis asked him his name. Told it was Lance Hunsaker, Davis replied: “You must be Dick’s son.”
“That,” said Dick Hunsaker, “was when I knew I had arrived.”
Hunsaker and Xavier’s Pete Gillen are the only coaches with fewer than 10 years of head coaching experience who have led their teams to the regional semifinals of this season’s NCAA tournament, and Hunsaker, at 35, is the youngest coach remaining in the tournament.
Also, the 12th-seeded Cardinals (26-6) are the lowest-seeded team left in the tournament. But don’t be fooled. Ball State will enter its West Regional game against top-seeded Nevada Las Vegas on Friday in Oakland with a team that is as good as Hunsaker is self-effacing.
For the last couple of seasons, Ball State has been a success story just begging to be told. And now that it has dumped a college basketball superpower to reach the tournament’s round of 16 for the first time, that story finally is being told.
Ball State basketball trivia item: Its 55-9 record over the last two seasons is second-best in the nation behind La Salle’s 56-8 mark.
The Cardinals’ latest victories came last Thursday and Saturday in Salt Lake City. They defeated fifth-seeded Oregon State, 54-53, on a three-point play that was completed after the final buzzer. Then they built a 17-point lead over fourth-seeded Louisville before hanging on to win, 62-60. That made two upsets by a combined three points for a team that had gone 1-4 in regular-season games decided by three points or fewer.
“You look at Louisville and say, ‘Come on, now,’ ” Hunsaker said this week. “There are a handful of teams in the country that seem to make the final 16 a part of their regular-season schedule. For us, it’s a dream come true.”
Making it particularly gratifying is the fact that Ball State has more than lived up to the enormous expectations created by last season’s 29-3 record and NCAA tournament first-round victory over Pittsburgh. The top nine players were returning from that team, but Coach Rick Majerus was not. He had departed for Utah, ironically the site of the Cardinals’ victories last week.
Enter Hunsaker. He had come to Ball State with Majerus in 1987 after serving as an assistant for nine seasons at Weber State. The Montana native’s coaching background certainly was in place. He had played his freshman season under Don Haskins at Texas-El Paso. He then transferred to Weber State, where he finished his playing career and began his coaching career under Neil McCarthy, now New Mexico State’s coach.
Hunsaker inherited a team with nine seniors, seven of whom were among its best players. But his first season as a head coach got off to a rocky beginning, when 6-foot-9 starting center Curtis Kidd, a senior, and starting point guard Scott Nichols, another senior, had arthroscopic knee surgery in October and missed virtually all of the preseason practice. Then there was a season-opening 57-43 loss to Purdue. Four games later, junior guard Keith Stallings injured a knee and was out for the season.
But the Cardinals regrouped in time for Mid-American Conference play. They became the first team in 27 years to repeat as outright MAC champion.
And during the season, a group of Cardinals that Hunsaker called “a collection of misfits from different backgrounds” became a team. Kidd and 6-7 senior forward Paris McCurdy, the team’s best defensive player, attended Detroit’s Cooley High School and spent two seasons at Arkansas-Little Rock, helping the Trojans upset Notre Dame in 1986 and finish fourth in the National Invitation Tournament in 1987.
But they blended with Muncie natives Billy Butts, a 6-3 senior off-guard, and Chandler Thompson, a 6-3 sophomore guard with a 43-inch vertical leap. And Butts and Thompson blended with junior-college transfer Emanuel Cross, a 6-2 junior guard from Chicago who is the brother of former Purdue star Russell Cross. And Cross blended with 6-8 senior forward Greg Miller, 7-1 senior center Roman Muller and 6-5 senior forward Shawn Parrish, players from Midwest towns smaller than Muncie.
“They have a real affinity for one another,” Hunsaker said.
None averages more than 12 points per game, but the Cardinals are second in the nation in scoring defense (58.3 points per game), third in field-goal percentage defense (.398) and fifth in rebounding margin (8.4 per game). They have become the first MAC team to win its opening NCAA tournament game in two consecutive seasons and the first MAC team in 26 years to win its first two games in the tournament.
“We approached those (tournament) games as we approached each game this season,” said Hunsaker, the most successful first-year head coach in the MAC’s 44-year history in terms of victories and winning percentage. “Each was just another game to play.”
He is taking the same approach to UNLV. Instead of keeping his players on the road, Hunsaker brought them back to school, back to class.
“I know they’re a great team,” he said. “They might be the best team in the country when they have everyone healthy and in uniform. But we aren’t going to be starry-eyed. We’re going to be there to win.”