JONESBORO — Top to bottom, start to finish, Arkansas State coach Mike Balado described the Red Wolves’ performance in last Saturday’s 93-72 rout of Louisiana-Monroe as their most consistent on both ends of the court.
ASU shot 52.6 percent from the field, dominated the boards and reached its defensive goals as well. The victory gave the Red Wolves a two-game sweep and some momentum going into a challenging trip to longtime rival Louisiana-Lafayette.
The Red Wolves (5-6, 2-2 Sun Belt) and Ragin’ Cajuns (9-4, 3-3) tip off this evening at 6 at the Cajundome in Lafayette, La. Saturday’s game is set for 4 p.m.
Playing at a faster pace was a point of emphasis in ASU’s second series with ULM. Balado is adamant the Red Wolves won’t change their approach this week just because the Cajuns like to get up and down the court quickly, too.
“We’re going to play the way we play,” Balado said. “One of the reasons why we were successful this past weekend against Monroe is we emphasized our pace of play on offense. I thought we were playing too slow to start the season at times. We were able to push the ball faster. That’s the way this team plays, and that’s the way we recruited.
“That’s something we’re looking forward to doing and I know Lafayette likes to do it as well. We’re going to go back and forth, and I think the team that guards better in the half-court at times and rebounds is the team that’s going to win.”
The series features intriguing matchups in several areas, starting with the backcourt and two players on each team who were preseason All-Sun Belt selections.
UL Lafayette’s Mylik Wilson and Cedric Russell were second and third-team All-Sun Belt, respectively, in the preseason. Wilson, a 6-3 sophomore who was last year’s Sun Belt Freshman of the Year, is putting up 14.4 points and 5.8 rebounds per game. He produced 25 points and 16 rebounds in his team’s 68-51 victory Saturday at Texas-Arlington.
Russell, a 6-2 senior, leads the Cajuns and ranks third in the Sun Belt with an average of 16.9 points per game. Balado is also wary of Devin Butts, a 6-6 sophomore transfer from Mississippi State who scored 22 points in an overtime victory over Texas State.
“Mylik Wilson and Cedric Russell give them obviously a very, very good backcourt, arguably one of the best in the league, if not the best,” Balado said. “They went the transfer route (in recruiting); Devin Butts, a kid from Mississippi State, is very good and also the big kid, (Theo) Akwuba, from Portland. They’re good. They’re very deep, they have size, athleticism and shooting. It’s going to be a tall task for us, but we’re looking forward to it.”
ASU guards Marquis Eaton and Caleb Fields were also second and third-team All-SBC, respectively, in the preseason.
Fields scored 19 points in each game last weekend, also adding 11 rebounds and 11 assists for the series. Eaton had a strong weekend as well, finishing with 17 points and a career-best 10 assists in Saturday’s game.
“For them, it was more what they like to do, playing fast, and we didn’t play with that pace, I don’t think, all year,” Balado said. “Maybe we did against the non-(Division) Is, but that’s a different type of competition level. When they do that, I think it shows so much more of what they can do and the speed they can play at.”
ASU freshman forward Norchad Omier has grabbed double-digit rebounds in eight consecutive games after pulling down 17 last Saturday. Omier is the league’s No. 1 rebounder at 11.9 per game and also averages 12.8 points.
UL Lafayette’s Akwuba, a 6-11 junior transfer from Portland, leads the Sun Belt in blocked shots with 45. He also ranks fourth in rebounding at 10.5 per game and scores 10.8 points per game. Dou Gueye, a 6-9 senior, averages 10.1 points and 8.7 rebounds for the Cajuns.
Balado said the Red Wolves have practiced well since last weekend.
“Our focus is still the same,” he said. “We’re looking forward to two tough games on Friday and Saturday, but winning last weekend helps.”