JONESBORO — Sun Belt Conference men’s basketball coaches collectively underestimated Texas State in their preseason poll.
The Bobcats were picked fifth out of six teams in the Sun Belt West Division. Under interim head coach Terrence Johnson, Texas State has the league’s best record and a two-game lead in the West going into Monday night’s game at Arkansas State.
“I think Terrence Johnson has done an unbelievable job with that group. I’m just kind of waiting for them to take the interim tag off of him because he deserves the job,” ASU head coach Mike Balado said. “They lost Nijal Pearson, the (SBC) player of the year, so people didn’t think they would be playing as well as they are, but what people overlooked is the fact they had (several) seniors on the roster and this year, with the way things have gone, I think veteran teams have a little bit of an advantage because of limited practice time.”
The Red Wolves (10-9, 7-5 Sun Belt) host the Bobcats (15-6, 9-3 Sun Belt) on Monday in the teams’ lone regular-season meeting. Tipoff is scheduled for 6 p.m.
Both teams have won four games in a row. Texas State completed a season sweep of Arkansas-Little Rock before beating Texas-Arlington twice last week. ASU swept a home series with Louisiana-Lafayette before beating UALR twice last week to move into second place in the Sun Belt West.
The initial series scheduled between the teams in San Marcos, Texas, was postponed in January because of COVID-19 issues within the Bobcats’ program. One game was canceled and ASU was scheduled to visit Texas State for the other game last Tuesday, only to have it canceled because of winter storms.
Texas State’s trip to Jonesboro this weekend was delayed because of icy conditions, leading to one of the two scheduled games being canceled and the other scheduled for Monday.
The Bobcats, who have won nine consecutive games against the Red Wolves, remain stingy defensively under Johnson. Texas State ranks 17th nationally in scoring defense, holding opponents to 62.3 points per game, and are 50th in turnovers forced at 15.52 per game.
“They’re a hard-nosed defensive team, very physical, very aggressive. That’s something that has been embedded in those guys,” Balado said. “They’re not going to change much of what their style is.
“Even though the numbers don’t show it as much, I think they play faster than they have in the past. They have more freedom. It’s a team that hangs their hat on the defensive end. They love to create points off turnovers. That’s a big key for us, to not have live ball turnovers and allow them to capitalize on those.”
Junior guards Mason Harrell and Caleb Asberry are both averaging better than 13 points per game for the Bobcats, both also shooting better than 41 percent from the 3-point line. Senior forward Isiah Small averages 10.6 points.
Senior guard Marquis Eaton, the Sun Belt player of the week the last two weeks, leads ASU with an average of 13.8 points per game. Freshman forward Norchad Omier, who is putting up 12.4 points and 11.5 rebounds per game, was tied for sixth nationally through Friday’s games with 11 double-doubles.
Sophomore guard Caleb Fields, ASU’s third-leading scorer at 11.7 points per game, missed most of last Saturday’s second half at UALR because of an ankle injury. Balado said Fields has been limited in practice, but will play Monday.
Monday’s game will be ASU’s last home game of the season. Balado said Eaton and senior guard Christian Willis may be recognized for their academic achievements, but not with a traditional senior night ceremony since both could return next season.
“With those two, being that they can come back and that’s a conversation we’ll have at the end of the season, I don’t want to have any distractions right now,” Balado said. “I think we’ll honor them academically.”