A-State opens Sun Belt play at ULM

Arkansas State’s Caleb Fields drives to the basket during a Dec. 20 game against Champion Christian at First National Bank Arena. The Red Wolves open Sun Belt Conference play this evening at Louisiana-Monroe as they play on New Year’s Day for the first time since 2011.

JONESBORO — Coach Mike Balado scheduled a non-Division I opponent after Christmas in each of the last two seasons, giving Arkansas State a chance to tune up before starting or getting back into Sun Belt Conference play.

Balado decided to take a different approach this year because of his team’s inexperience and the circumstances of the season. The Red Wolves returned to campus last weekend with their focus solely on this weekend’s Sun Belt Conference trip to Louisiana-Monroe.

“This year it was good for us to recalibrate and get back to practicing our stuff, getting good at what we do. It has to do a lot with the way the year has gone, less practice time and so many new guys,” Balado said earlier this week. “Preparing for a game before conference ... puts more stress on the players, so we decided to come back and take some time where we could just get back to the practice floor. I think it’s been great so far.”

ASU (3-4) and ULM (2-5) play tonight and Saturday at Fant-Ewing Coliseum in Monroe, La. Tonight’s game tips off at 6 p.m., followed by Saturday’s game at 4 p.m.

Both teams have changed considerably since they split last season’s two meetings, each winning on the other’s home court.

While the Red Wolves return their top two scorers in senior guard Marquis Eaton and sophomore guard Caleb Fields, they returned only two other lettermen from last year’s team that finished 16-16.

Keith Richard’s Warhawks also returned only two starters and four total lettermen from a team that closed with a 9-20 record. ULM’s top two scorers, 6-7 junior forward Russell Harrison and 6-1 junior guard Koreem Ozier, are newcomers.

“They’re a different team. I think this is probably the most offensive talent he’s had in a while, even though their numbers don’t show it,” Balado said. “I think every coach is going through kind of the same thing with a lot of new guys and limited practice time, especially in the summer when we couldn’t get them until July. It’s been harder for teams to pick up stuff in the non-conference, plus Monroe has only played seven games as well, like we have, so they had some games canceled. It’s a learning process for everybody.”

ULM has dropped three in a row with losses to Grambling State, Southern Mississippi and Louisiana Tech. The Warhawks, who played an all-Division I non-conference schedule, own victories over Northwestern State (92-83 in overtime on the road) and Stephen F. Austin (66-55 at home).

Harrison was a first-team NJCAA All-American and 2020 Texas Association of Basketball Coaches Junior College Player of the Year at Clarendon College. He averaged 13.0 points and 5.7 rebounds during non-conference play.

Balado described Harrison as “a poor man’s Paul George,” comparing the ULM standout to the Los Angeles Clippers forward because of his versatility.

“He scores in the mid-range, he can shoot 3s, he has deep range and he can also drive to the basket. He poses a problem matchup wise for a lot of teams because he can play so many positions with his size,” Balado added. “You put a smaller guy on him, he shoots over them. If you play a bigger guy on him, he drives by them like a guard. We just have to negate that by playing good defense and having all five guys, not just put it on one guy, go to him and make sure we make all his shots tough ones.”

Ozier transferred to ULM from Sacred Heart, where he averaged 14 points over two seasons and started 46 games. Through seven games with the Warhawks, Ozier is averaging 11.1 points while shooting 39.1 percent from the 3-point line.

“Very, very high-level scorer. He can shoot it from anywhere. He’s got a great first step and a quick release,” Balado said. “He takes good shots. He takes quick ones where you think it’s a bad one, but for them, it’s a good one because he’s open. They’re playing much faster than they have and he’s got a lot of freedom.”

ASU has been off since defeating Champion Christian 90-50 on Dec. 20. The Red Wolves have not played on the road since a Dec. 2 trip to Memphis.

Freshman forward Norchad Omier is averaging 13.8 points and 11.5 rebounds to lead the Red Wolves. Fields is putting up 12.7 points per game, while Eaton is averaging 10 points and three assists.

With two games in less than 24 hours, Balado believes bench play will be especially important. ASU will play back-to-back nights every weekend in Sun Belt play with the exception of the week the Red Wolves play Arkansas-Little Rock home and away.

“We’re going to have to go to the bench a lot this year and I think it’s good for the teams with the deeper bench and guys who have more experience early,” Balado said. “That’s why I played those freshmen and junior college transfers so much in the non-conference, or more than I usually would because I need to know who I can count on when conference time comes. Teams that play their guards, or their one or two guys, 37 minutes, it’s going to be tough to recover and play like that back-to-back nights.”

Balado said adjustments between games will likely be more about the Red Wolves than their Sun Belt opponents.

“If something works the night before, they’re going to adjust to that, so you have to combat that with something you have in your package,” Balado said. “If the first night something hurts you, you can’t go in with the same game plan. I think it’s more about our team and having things we can go to and having more options in our package, offensively and defensively.”

ASU will spend much of January on the road.

The Red Wolves will travel to Texas State next week before hosting ULM Jan. 15-16. They travel to Louisiana-Lafayette the following week before closing the month at home against Texas-Arlington.

“We have to be able to adjust to the environment around us and being in a hotel. You can’t change the conference schedule, so guys have to understand they have to be road warriors for the next month,” Balado said. “But the good thing is basically you have the whole month of February at home, so that helps.”