Las Vegas Ball State University, which shocked a star-studded Kansas University basketball team at the 2001 Maui Invitational, will be trying to make it two straight wins over the Jayhawks tonight - this time with a new coach on the bench.
Tim Buckley, who engineered a 93-91 victory over a KU squad led by Drew Gooden, Nick Collison, Kirk Hinrich and Jeff Boschee that ultimately reached the Final Four, was fired after last year's 10-18 season.
The Cardinals, who went 143-139 in Buckley's six seasons, turned to 37-year-old Ronny Thompson to resurrect a program that failed to build on Maui victories over KU and UCLA and attain mid-major elite status.
"It seems as though some people have forgotten what Ball State is all about," said Thompson, a University of Arkansas assistant the past three seasons and son of former Georgetown coaching legend John Thompson. "One of my main goals is to remind people what we are all about and how special this basketball program can be."
The program looked mighty special early in the 2001-02 season, but fizzled late en route to a 23-12 record and spot in the NIT, not the coveted NCAAs.
'It's going to take time'
Since that year, Ball State had just one winning season, costing Buckley, who is now an assistant at Iowa, his job.
"It is going to take time, and it's not going to be easy," said Thompson, off to a 2-1 start in his first head-coaching job heading into tonight's 7 p.m. Las Vegas Invitational battle with KU at Orleans Arena. "We all have to be conscious that with change comes new ideas, and all of us can adjust and get used to each other."
It's likely the Cardinals will embrace Thompson's ideas about how basketball is meant to be played.
Not only is he the son of a Hall of Famer, but brother of John Thompson III, the current Hoyas coach.
"Seeing my brother and father go through it has helped, but you can't practice it until you go through it for yourself," Ronny Thompson said of learning how to be a head coach.
In fact, it's trial and error for Ronny, who played at Georgetown from 1989-92 and was a Hoya assistant from 1999-2003.
"I would be naive to think that it's not going to be heavily influenced by a lot of things he's taught me," Ronny Thompson said of modeling his coaching style after his father's. "Ideally, I do want to play an up-tempo style, I do want to get up and down the court, but a lot of that is contingent on the horses that are in the stable, so to speak."
Thompson - his first team has rolled to victories over Northern Colorado (81-42) and Prairie View A&M; (65-48) to go with Tuesday's home loss to Tennessee Chattanooga (70-55) - said he has discovered as a head coach, "there are little details that you never even thought about.
"The non-basketball-related things, because as an assistant you dealt with primarily basketball. Another big thing is the requests for speaking engagements. It's very easy to get sidetracked from basketball, which is what this is all about. At times, you need to tactfully say, 'Thanks for the offer, but I just don't have time.' I have hired good people and they have been a huge help in making the transition."
He has learned from "good people" like former KU assistant Jerry Green, a man Thompson worked for one season at Oregon. He also has been an aide at Loyola (Md.) and on his dad's staff at Georgetown.
"The players are getting used to little things," said disciplinarian Thompson. "Everything from wearing a coat and tie to dinners, to tucking your shirt in at practice, to lining up on this side of the floor at practice. Once they get a handle on how I am and how I want the basketball side of things, the chemistry will slowly start to fall into place."
Players to watch
On the court, the Cardinals are to be led by 6-foot-3 senior Skip Mills, who has been bothered by tendinitis in his leg. Mills was named to the Mid America Conference's preseason all-league team.
Senior guard Peyton Stovall is coming off a pair of serious injuries. He tore the ACL in his left knee last Nov. 26, his second left ACL tear in less than nine months.
"At times he appears tentative, but he thinks he's a ballplayer, which is good," Thompson told the Muncie Star-Press. "I don't see him questioning his ability to play, but at times he's hesitant, or the timing that was always natural to him may not be natural now, but he's coming."
For the first surgery, Stovall received a ligament from a cadaver. The second time, the patella tendon from his own knee was used to replace the anterior cruciate ligament.
"The tendon is stronger because it comes from your own body," Stovall told the Star-Press.
Ball State's man in the middle is Micah Rollin, a 6-10, 260-pound transfer from College of Southern Idaho. He has played just one year of organized basketball.
"Micah is raw and has to adjust to some things and stop fouling so much," Thompson said of Rollin, who had 11 points and eight fouls in the first two games. "Even when he is not fouling someone, it looks like a foul. He is so big, and I think when we play some larger teams down the line, his presence will not be so pronounced. He needs to learn a little more tact and skill with the position, and it will come with time since he has not played a whole lot of basketball. He has to learn to just get a feel for the game and when to hold back or pull back on some things. He has the right mentality and now we just have to figure out how to get it to fit with our game."
There are a lot of things to figure out because remember, it's Thompson's first go-round on the bench.