JONESBORO — Matt Daniel hopes the progress he has seen in Arkansas State’s women’s basketball program can be measured in wins this winter.
Last season, Daniel took over a team that hasn’t had a winning season since claiming the Sun Belt Conference regular-season championship in 2015-16. ASU ended his first year as head coach with an 11-19 overall record and an 8-10 Sun Belt record.
The Red Wolves return their top three scorers from last season while adding two transfers who sat out last season and six newcomers.
“I think that we’re growing both basketball-wise and culturally. I think we’ve made leaps and bounds in both areas,” said Daniel, whose team opens the season Friday at First National Bank Arena against Arkansas-Pine Bluff at 6 p.m. “Whether that equates to more wins, that remains to be seen, and this is a prime example – people say, ‘Hey, I think we’ve got a 20-win team here,’ and then you only play 19.
“I’m not into promising those kind of things and I’m not saying we have a 20-win team, but I think we have a better basketball team and hopefully that correlates to more wins than losses.”
Wins and losses tended to come in groups last season. ASU endured losing streaks of four, five and six games, also dropping consecutive games to end the season. The Red Wolves won four in a row at one point in January and won back-to-back games on three other occasions.
Daniel said the Red Wolves have increased their basketball IQ, which he expects to help in several categories.
“I think we’re going to take care of the ball. We’ve got to be better than we were defensively last year, it’s just an area that we needed lots of improvement in, but I think we can possibly have that,” Daniel said. “I think our IQ and defensive intensity will be a lot better for sure, and I think the IQ helps in a lot of different things. I think you get better shots on goal, more shots on goal, less live-ball turnovers, which means less transition buckets. I just think that helps you in every facet.”
The Red Wolves return their leading scorer in 5-9 junior guard Jireh Washington, who earned third-team All-Sun Belt honors after averaging 13 points and leading the Red Wolves with 111 assists.
Washington’s 2019-20 exploits included the game-winning buzzer-beater against Coastal Carolina, a basket that handed the Chanticleers one of only four losses all season. She also scored 16 of ASU’s last 19 points as the Red Wolves rallied from 21 down to beat South Alabama.
“I think she’s more comfortable in the offense and we’ve got some pieces to the puzzle that can move her off the ball as well,” Daniel said. “We can kind of run her around and take advantage of mismatches, but this being her second go-round, it will certainly be a little bit smoother transition for her, I believe.”
Peyton Martin, a 5-11 senior forward, was ASU’s second-leading scorer and rebounder last season at 12.5 points and 5.8 rebounds per game. She was third-team All-Sun Belt in 2019.
“She’s a high-energy person who’s very productive on the floor, and we need that,” Daniel said. “Very easily she could have been an all-conference selection.”
Daniel said 5-10 senior Morgan Wallace could have been All-Sun Belt, too. While she’s listed as a guard, Wallace is expected to start at forward Friday night.
Wallace led the team in rebounding last year at 8.2 per game and she also averaged 10.9 points. She tied an ASU record in First National Bank Arena last season with 12 defensive rebounds against Troy.
“She’s just one of those you like to have on the floor,” Daniel said. “She just makes everything run smoother. She’s a great communicator and plays her tail off, and that’s what we’ve come to expect.”
Jada Stinson, a 5-8 junior guard, is also part of what Daniel lists as ASU’s “core four” along with Washington, Wallace and Martin.
A transfer from Memphis who sat out last season at ASU, Stinson started 30 games over two seasons with the Tigers, averaging 6.8 points as a freshman and 5.8 points as a sophomore. She is expected to join Washington in the lineup Friday as ASU goes with two point guards.
“I’ve known her since she was in about the eighth grade. We recruited her at Marshall. I actually did her first home visit when I was recruiting her, and she decided to go to Memphis,” Daniel said. “When she decided to transfer, it was a pretty easy transition because of the relationship. She can score on all three levels and her IQ is high, which makes us just more organized on the floor.”
Wallace is expected to start in the front court in the opener along with 6-0 junior college transfer Karolina Szydlowska and 6-3 junior Trinitee Jackson.
Szydlowska averaged 11.3 points and 7.0 rebounds last season at Seward County (Kan.) Community College. Jackson played in 28 games last season for the Red Wolves.
Along with Szydlowska, newcomers who will be in the mix include 6-4 junior Talia Roldan, a transfer from UAB who sat out last season; 6-6 Seynabou Thiam, who blocked 58 shots last season as a freshman at McLennan (Texas) Community College; and Jordyn Brown, a 5-8 guard who shot 42.5 percent from the 3-point line last season at Fresno (Calif.) City College.
Former Nettleton star Mya Love, a 5-8 sophomore guard, started eight games and played in 27 last season for the Red Wolves while averaging 2.7 points and 2.2 rebounds. Kayla Williams, a 6-1 senior forward, started 13 games and played in 27 last season, putting up 2.9 points per game.
With six players who stand 6-0 or better, plus effective rebounders under 6-0 in Wallace and Martin, Daniel hopes the Red Wolves will fare better on the boards this season.
ASU was out-rebounded by more than seven per game last year while giving up an average of more than 73 points.
“They don’t turn it over a lot, but people miss shots,” Daniel said. “People make less than 50 percent, so you need to go get balls when they come off the rim and that has been a focus. I just hope it carries over to game day.”
Perimeter shooting is another key, Daniel said. ASU lost Jada Ford and Payton Tennison, who combined for 114 of the team’s 186 3-point baskets last season.
Daniel said Stinson, Szydlowska, Brown and even Roldan can help with perimeter shooting along with Washington and Wallace.
“We can play Jireh off the ball and it frees her up a little bit. Morgan Wallace was 42 percent from the 3 in conference play,” Daniel said. “Hopefully it will be a little bit better, but it is an area of concern. That and rebounding are two big keys for us.”
The Red Wolves have already had one Division I opponent subtracted from their non-conference schedule as Daniel said Evansville won’t come to Jonesboro next month. ASU is trying to finalize an agreement with another opponent, he said.
All six non-conference games presently on the schedule will be played in Arkansas, which includes five home games and a return trip to UAPB. The first four Sun Belt games are also in Jonesboro.
“I wanted to keep us in the state, travel as little as possible, keep everything safe and sound where we can control the testing environment a little bit. Then we’ll see how it shakes out after Christmas,” Daniel said.