Khamari Ballard’s basketball career has been a series of adjustments.
He was enrolled in four colleges before signing with Columbia College as a junior.
Before the 2002-03 season, Ballard, a senior guard, was virtually unknown in Columbia. By the end of the year, Ballard was Columbia College’s leading scorer (17.2), the American Midwest Conference Newcomer of the Year and a second-team NAIA All-American.
This year, Ballard said he expects to make the All-America team, but helping his team win a national championship is his ultimate goal.
So far, Ballard has been successful on both accounts. He has cemented his status as one of the NAIA’s premier players. His scoring average is up to 19.7, and he has led the No. 17 Cougars to a 6-1 record.
Ballard and the Cougars will host the Thanksgiving Classic tonight and Saturday.
The Cougars play Avila at 8 tonight and MidAmerica Nazarene at 3 p.m. Saturday.
Ballard said spending a year at Columbia College is helping him immensely this season.
“It feels good; you don’t have to worry about where you’re going next year,” he said. “It was hard to fit in when I only had one year. Once you’re at one place for two years, after the first year you really know what coach wants from you.”
Coach Bob Burchard said he has challenged Ballard to not only energize the offense, but be a catalyst on defense. Burchard said he has been pleased with how Ballard has responded.
“We’re not particularly big inside, so we need to build our perimeter defense strong,” he said. “I think (Ballard) has led the charge.
“I think he has matured as a player (faster) in a shorter period of time than a lot of guys I’ve recruited. He’s got a really high basketball IQ. Last year was such a transitional year for him, in terms of how the game needs to be played at the four-year college level, and at times I think he fought that. I think this year his comfort level and understanding (of the game) is at such a higher level that, instead of fighting it, he’s teaching it to our other (players).”
Ballard has readjusted to a starting role this season after coming off the bench primarily last year. Ballard said he just wants to play no matter what the role, and he thinks there are advantages to being an early game substitute.
“Coming off the bench, I can see how the refs are letting us play,” he said. “It lets me know if I can be aggressive, and it shows what I can and cannot do.”
Senior Andre Amos was Ballard’s teammate at Northwest Mississippi Community College. After one season together, Amos signed with Columbia College, and Ballard signed with the University of Louisiana-Monroe, an NCAA Division I team.
Ballard never played for Louisiana-Monroe. He was ruled academically ineligible after one week of enrollment. Fortunately, Columbia College had a scholarship to offer Ballard, and Burchard jumped at the chance to sign him. Ballard arrived in Columbia the day before classes began.
Ballard said Columbia College has been a great fit for him, and he remains focused on helping the Cougars win. Still, he said he can’t help but wonder how his game would have translated to the Division I level.
“That’s always in the back of my mind,” he said.
As a Jackson, Miss., native, Ballard said adjusting to aspects of Columbia life has been as challenging as getting acquainted to his new teammates. Having Amos around eased his basketball transition, but no one could prepare him for Missouri weather, he said.
“When it snows (in Jackson) everything closes down,” he said. “But here, you’ve still got to go to class, and it was a big pain for me at first.”