Now 4-0, the Aces believe their 24-point win over Ball State is 'only the beginning'

Anthony Kristensen
Evansville Courier & Press

EVANSVILLE — The University of Evansville men’s basketball team went into halftime against Ball State with a narrow three-point lead. And then the Purple Aces ended with three walk-ons and two scholarship freshmen on the floor with the win long secured.

UE’s 74-50 dismantling of the Cardinals on Saturday afternoon was a sign of intent. Coach David Ragland’s team is now 4-0 and is one win from matching its total from last season. Ball State beat the Aces by 19 points in Muncie a year ago. Now, the Aces are undefeated after four games for the first time since former coach Marty Simmons’ final season in 2017, a year in which UE finished 17-15.

That was the last time the Aces finished above .500.

“Our staff and our players made a commitment to come to UE to revive a storied program,” Ragland said. “We’ve taken on the responsibility of not running from the challenge that we had when we first got here, but running toward it. This is part of the process. … It’s just one step in the journey.”

Kenny Strawbridge Jr. drives to the basket against Ball State.

The message is clear, as shown by the boisterous Ford Center crowd of 5,172 and fervent student section. This isn’t the Aces of last season or the handful of years prior. If Wednesday’s beating of Southeast Missouri State wasn’t enough proof, beating a Cardinals team that won 20 games last season and came in unbeaten by a margin that could have — and perhaps should have — been larger does.

If nothing else, this UE team has made Aces games fun again. 

“It feels like a total 180 right now, but it’s still a long season,” said UE guard Kenny Strawbridge Jr., who scored his 1,000th point in the win. “We remember that. So we’re just trying to make a statement this year and it’s been fun so far.”

Ragland said last season was more about setting the foundation than wins and losses. A 5-27 finish followed, marking the program’s worst since moving to Division I. As did a roster exodus. Ragland and the staff intentionally found players who fit that culture. The results were seen Saturday, particularly with the 19-1 run the Aces ran off to start the second half. The defense was suffocating; the offense was efficient. UE forced 18 turnovers and had as many assists. Eight players scored five or more points.

Last game:'They knew what the job was': UE men's basketball is off to its best start since 2019

Expectations should be measured. But this early success goes back to culture and foundation.

“‘We’ is better than ‘Me,’” guard Antonio Thomas said. “It’s us vs. us, always. We just focus on that.”

The Aces began the season ranked No. 332 in KenPom’s adjusted efficiency rankings. UE jumped 31 spots after beating SEMO and 49 after Ball State. In total, the Aces are 96 spots better than they were on Nov. 5. That number will continue to rise if UE performs at the same level it has in the past two games.

Saturday’s result turns heads. It was a projected coinflip contest, neither team looking overtly stronger on paper than the other. In practice, the game was anything but close. Some slight defensive adjustments here and an extra cut there led to the Aces running the Cardinals out of Ford Center.

Antonio Thomas takes a contested jumper against Ball State.

That brings eyes, which turn to spectators. More games like that will lead to more attention and more respect. It all comes back to foundation and culture.

For the first time in years, UE seems to have a path ahead.

“It’s only the beginning,” Ragland said. “I think the team is finding out more and more about ourselves that’s going to make us more efficient on both ends of the floor. … It’s early in the process, so I feel like this team is only going to get better.”