D.J. Balentine made the transition to Division I basketball look easy as he led the University of Evansville in scoring through most of the Aces’ nonconference schedule.
Balentine wants to shoot and score, and he does it best while running the court. Now that teams know that, they’ve since shown the freshman how tough the college ranks can be.
“They’re picking me up and not letting me get transition points as easily,” Balentine said ahead of tonight’s 7:05 tipoff between Evansville and Missouri State at the Ford Center. “That just means I have to work twice as hard in the half court.”
Balentine will try to find his groove again versus a Missouri State team entering on an uptick, albeit a slight one.
The Bears (3-10, 1-0 Missouri Valley Conference) snapped an eight-game losing streak Sunday by knocking off Southern Illinois — their first win this season over a Division I opponent. Evansville (7-6, 0-1 MVC), meanwhile, has lost its last two games to Butler and Creighton, both ranked opponents on the road.
“Just seeing their quotes and things, they’ve obviously got a lot of confidence off that win,” said Aces coach Marty Simmons. “It’s going to be a tough, grind-it-out, physical game. We’re trying to get our mindset right through the three days of hard practice and be ready to play.”
Balentine can’t wait for another chance to do that.
The first guard off Simmons’ bench, Balentine has scored as many as 26 in a game this season but was held well under his 10.1 points-per-game average the last two times out. He tallied two points against Butler before going scoreless at Creighton.
“D.J.’s got to understand he’s not going to get those looks he got earlier in the season without really good execution,” Simmons said. “He got a lot of buckets in transition when he was ready and able, and now teams are picking him up a lot earlier.
“It’s just a transition of, now you’ve got to get to the next stage.”
Evansville’s offense is unlike what Balentine ran while starring at Kokomo High School. There he worked off the dribble and created his own shots. At Evansville, where the Aces run motion sets, he has to work within the system to find chances.
“Cutting — I’m not really good at it yet,” Balentine said. “I’m used to having the ball in my hands, and teams are taking that away. Now I have to take what they give me and make it work.”
Missouri State, 44th in the nation with a field-goal percentage defense of 29 percent, will challenge Balentine in that regard.
The 6-foot-2 guard is often compared to senior Colt Ryan, the only other Indiana All-Star on the Aces’ roster and Evansville’s leading scorer each of the last three seasons.
Ryan offered some advice for Balentine, who’s connecting on 46.2 percent of his field-goal attempts this season, to work out of the slump.
“D.J.’s a great shooter who’s just got to keep taking shots,” Ryan said. “He was really hot earlier in the season. He’s had some good looks and just not hit them. That’s just how it goes.”