By TRAVIS MILLER
D.J. Balentine left behind a host of accomplishments when he departed the Kokomo High School basketball program. He was a two-time North Central Conference champion, a state runner-up, the No. 3 leading scorer in the program’s storied history and the Wildkats’ first Indiana All-Star in 16 seasons. That pedigree helped him earn a scholarship to the University of Evansville, where he has not let down the Purple Aces through the first 12 games of his collegiate career.
Balentine was in Indianapolis on Saturday afternoon to help his Aces take on Butler at historic Hinkle Fieldhouse and a Kokomo crowd was there to see him play.
“It’s been great so far,” Balentine said of his young collegiate career. “It’s been a lot of fun with everything. I kind of expected that I would play this well because I am confident in my abilities. I am just glad to be able to help the team.”
So far, Balentine is the No. 2 leading scorer on a team that has a leadership corps of six senior players. Balentine was averaging 11.7 points in 24.2 minutes per game before facing the Bulldogs on Saturday. He was also one of the team’s best shooters with a 50 percent average from the field, 45.5 percent from 3-point range, and a spotless 100 percent from the free throw line.
The Bulldogs hassled him into an outing full of struggle at Hinkle. Balentine scored just two points on 1-of-5 shooting from the field. Balentine also missed his first free throw of the season, but a defensive rebound started a break that led to a transition basket.
“Butler is a really, really tough team to play, especially at home,” Balentine said. “They make you work for everything you get, but this is the type of team you want to play if you want to get better.”
One of Balentine’s best games of the season came in a tough 79-72 at Colorado State in early December. Balentine connected on six 3-pointers and finished with a career-high 26 points as he hit on 10 of his 15 shots from the field.
Balentine also has had double figures nights of 17 (in a 103-69 win over Oakland City), 16 (in a 66-56 win over Yale) and 15 twice (in back-to-back games against Miami of Ohio and Murray State). Evansville also has faced likely NCAA Tournament teams in Notre Dame, Murray State and Butler.
“We’ve got the conference season coming up and one of our goals is to take what we have learned and apply it in a tough league,” Balentine said. “We feel like we’ve got a shot of making some noise once we get into league play.”
The Aces have a tough task ahead of them. Evansville has not been to the NCAA Tournament since 1999 and the Missouri Valley Conference is regularly one of the toughest mid-major leagues in the country. League favorite Creighton is currently ranked No. 13 nationally and Wichita State has been ranked this season as well.
Balentine still thinks of Kokomo. When told that his younger brother, Des Balentine, had 30 points for Western in a triple-overtime victory over Northwestern in a Coca-Cola Old School Sectional semifinal game earlier Saturday afternoon, his eyes lit up.
“I can’t even think about playing with my brother in college some day,” Balentine said of his brother, who is a 2015 prospect and is drawing some interest. “I definitely want to get up there and see him play [Saturday night].”
That might be the only circumstance that could make an old Wildkat like Balentine go against Kokomo.