Indianapolis — After beating two Top Five teams to open the season and earning the highest ranking in school history, Ball State won't be overlooked again. At least not this season.
The Cardinals (5-1) moved to 15th in this week's AP college basketball team. The only loss was to top-ranked Duke in the Maui Invitational championship game, but that followed big wins over Kansas and UCLA in the tournament's first two rounds.
Now it may be Ball State's turn as the favorite.
"I would say that it's a good thing," coach Tim Buckley said of the Cardinals' ranking. "It gives us national exposure and it's exciting for our fans, but we also know the ranking is irrelevant as to what goes on on the floor, and we still have to go out and play good basketball."
Except for the 83-71 loss to Duke and a 93-91 victory over No. 4 Kansas, the Cardinals have dominated their opponents, beating then-No. 3 UCLA by 18 points, and Elon and Austin Peay by 41 and 21 points, respectively, in last week's First Merchants Classic in Muncie.
Ball State defeated winless Indiana-Purdue of Fort Wayne Thursday, then heads to Bloomington on Saturday for a game at Indiana, where the Cardinals have never won.
"Our focus has just been to get better and better every day," Buckley said. "When that's your focus and you have respect for the game, it doesn't matter who the opponent is."
The Cardinals, who lost to UCLA in the first round of the NCAA Tournament two years ago, did not make the field of 65 last season, finishing 18-12 and third in the Mid-American Conference's West Division in Buckley's first year as coach.
But Ball State returned starters Patrick Jackson, Lonnie Jones and Theron Smith, and the Cards' greater depth allowed them to move Billy Lynch, another starter last year, to the bench.
Through five games, Jackson is averaging 20.8 points; Chris Williams, who was redshirted last year after transferring from Loyola, Ill., is averaging 18.0; and Smith, who was last week's MAC West player of the week, is averaging 17.2.
"By nature, he's a very unselfish player," Buckley said of the 6-foot-8 Smith, who was the MAC freshman of the year in 2000 then led Ball State last season at 16.3 points a game.
"As a freshman and sophomore, sometimes he was too unselfish and we wanted him to hunt his shot a little more," Buckley said. "But the other players around him are now scoring threats, and that opens up some things for him. Even when he gets covered or doubled, he'll get the ball out on the post, and he makes good decisions."
The 7-foot Jones is averaging only 7.2 points but had 17 blocked shots in the first five games. Away from the basket, the Cardinals have relied heavily on the three-pointer, with Williams (15) and Jackson (14) hitting more than all of Ball State's foes combined.
After Saturday's game, Ball State will play Indiana-Purdue-Indianapolis, Butler, Indiana State and Oklahoma State before its MAC opener at Kent State on Jan. 2.
"Our preparation doesn't change for whoever we play," Buckley said. "Our guys have been very good about playing one game at a time."