Balado counting on depth in Sun Belt play

Freshman forward Norchad Omier (15) battles for a rebound during Arkansas State’s 90-50 victory over Champion Christian. Omier is averaging 13.8 points and 11.5 rebounds per game as the Red Wolves prepare to open Sun Belt Conference play next weekend at Louisiana-Monroe.

JONESBORO — Mike Balado hopes depth will be one of Arkansas State’s strengths as the Red Wolves begin an unusual Sun Belt Conference basketball schedule at the end of the week.

Sun Belt teams will play divisional opponents only, mostly on back-to-back nights at the same location, to limit travel because of the COVID-19 pandemic. ASU’s path through the Sun Belt West begins Friday and Saturday at Louisiana-Monroe.

“It’s going to be more strategic the night before (the second game), things we have to change, things that hurt us, if we can work on those things,” said Balado, ASU’s fourth-year head coach. “The scouting part from Monday to Thursday is just for one team, but we have to turn right back around and play back-to-back days.

“Our bench is going to come in really big. Our depth is going to help us throughout the conference season because if we play a deep bench, we’ll be able to rest guys and give guys minutes and be able to play everybody a certain amount of time.”

ASU (3-4) has played at least nine players in every game. The Red Wolves’ starters are all averaging 20-plus minutes per game, with five more players off the bench also averaging double-digit minutes during non-conference play.

Balado said he would like to include 10 players in ASU’s rotation in Sun Belt play, but it might not always be the same 10.

“Who’s going to be those 10? It could change every week. Who the starting five is going to be could change every week,” Balado said after last Sunday’s game against Champion Christian. “We just have to find 10 guys to be able to spell minutes for people and be able to help us win a game.”

Initially scheduled for nine non-conference games, the Red Wolves played only seven because of cancellations related to COVID-19.

The three-game Justin Reed Ole Miss Classic was canceled and Stephen F. Austin also canceled a game against ASU. The Red Wolves were able to add games with Marshall and Morehead State. Three of their last four games were against in-state teams from the NAIA or NCCAA, and they also canceled a game against Freed-Hardeman.

“Any game you win is going to give you confidence,” Balado said, “but any time you can put the uniform on, work on your rotation and play with officials and in front of your fans helps you, no matter who it is.”

Forward Norchad Omier, a 6-7 freshman, has quickly emerged as a key player.

Omier leads ASU with averages of 13.8 points and 11.5 rebounds. He has reached double figures in both categories in each of the last four games.

Balado said Omier has made strides in understanding the game since arriving at ASU.

“Every day he gets better and better at understanding why we’re running certain plays timing-wise, understanding time and score. Those are things that I’ve seen,” Balado said. “Film has really helped him. He has to continue to be a student of the game because his athleticism is eventually going to be negated by talent that he plays against, so he’s going to have to get his edge some other way and he’s learning every day.

“The thing I love about him most is the way he handles himself around his teammates. He’s such a great teammate, so humble. To get what he gets in the amount of time he gets it, it’s pretty impressive.”

Sophomore guard Caleb Fields and senior guard Marquis Eaton average 12.7 and 10.0 points, respectively.

Junior forward Keyon Wesley is averaging 9.0 points and 4.4 rebounds per game. Senior guard Christian Willis, who averages 7.6 points, is 9-of-17 from the 3-point line.

“I feel like we’re getting better and better every day,” said Wesley, a junior college transfer who has started all seven games. “We’re really building a good brotherhood and we’ve really got each other’s back out on the court. Every day we’re getting better and better, keeping the mindset that we have to win and bring a championship to Jonesboro.”

Sophomore forward Antwon Jackson has started twice and is averaging the most minutes (15.7) among ASU’s reserves. Former Westside standout Avery Felts, a redshirt freshman guard, has averaged 11.9 minutes while also appearing in every game.

Caleb London, a 6-4 freshman guard who starred at Conway last year, has impressed Balado with his effort on the defensive end.

“Caleb London is emerging, along with Christian Willis and Markise Davis, as very, very good defenders for us,” Balado said. “Those three guys, if we can play those three on the other team’s best player, I think it will make us a pretty good defensive team.”

Davis, a 6-8 junior college transfer who scored 13 points at Memphis, missed a couple of games with an injury before returning against Champion Christian.

ULM (2-5) finished its non-conference schedule with a 68-57 home loss to Louisiana Tech last Tuesday. The Warhawks own victories over Northwestern State and Stephen F. Austin.

“They’re a different team than last year. They have some junior college players who are very, very good. They’re a big team,” Balado said. “Coach (Keith) Richard does an excellent job. They’re very, very good offensively, shoot a lot of 3s, so we have to make sure we’re able to lock in on them and who their best players are, what they like to do.

“Everybody has time to prepare now, so God knows what they’ll change over Christmas break. We have to be prepared for everything.”

ASU’s first four Sun Belt games are on the road. The Red Wolves return to Jonesboro to face ULM Jan. 15-16.