Balado hoping Red Wolves will pick up pace

Arkansas State’s Marquis Eaton makes a move toward the basket during a game against Champion Christian. The Red Wolves host Louisiana-Monroe tonight and Saturday at First National Bank Arena.

JONESBORO — An unexpected break in its schedule gave Arkansas State time to go back to the basics offensively.

The Red Wolves were off last weekend after their Sun Belt Conference series at Texas State was postponed because of the Bobcats’ COVID-19 issues. Head coach Mike Balado said ASU used the time to recalibrate and get back to the tempo he wants to see.

“The thing that sticks out the most to me, that we’ve worked over the last 13 days, has been the pace of our offense,” Balado said. “We’re usually a fast-paced team and we’re not getting any transition points. That’s something that we’ve really harped on, getting more organized and pushing the ball, playing at a faster pace. I think this team is better playing fast.

“They were slowing down, they were thinking too much, and that goes back to having a lot of new guys and still figuring out rotations and guys understanding what to do, because we’ve played such limited games. That’s something we’ve really harped on and that’s something where I hope we can play better on this side of the ball this time around.”

The Red Wolves (3-6, 0-2 Sun Belt) play Louisiana-Monroe (4-7, 2-2) tonight and Saturday at First National Bank Arena. Tipoff tonight is set for 6 p.m., followed by a 4 o’clock start Saturday.

ULM swept ASU when the teams opened Sun Belt play two weeks ago in Monroe. The first game was a blowout as the Warhawks settled for an 84-72 victory after leading by as many as 29 points in the second half.

The Red Wolves had an opportunity to win the second game, which they led for five minutes in the second half, but the Warhawks regained the lead with about five minutes to play and went on to earn a 62-55 victory.

Balado said ASU made some adjustments defensively after the first game, when ULM was 12-of-22 from the 3-point line and shot 48.4 percent overall, and also emphasized different play calls on offense in the second game.

“Even though we didn’t score a lot of points, I thought our offense was a little better,” Balado said of the Saturday game at ULM. “Even though the percentages didn’t show it, I thought we tried to do what we practiced, what we talked about from the night before and we got to the free throw line a ton. I think we shot 29 free throws that game, which is something we have to continue to do. We just have to make those free throws down the stretch.”

The Red Wolves missed four free throws in the final 90 seconds, including two by sophomore guard Caleb Fields when ULM’s lead was 54-50 with 1:20 to play.

The Warhawks were 21-of-44 from the 3-point line for the weekend. Forward Russell Harrison and guard Koreem Ozier scored 30 points each for the weekend, making five 3s each.

“I thought we played hard defensively and I think our half-court defense was very good. We just have to know personnel,” Balado said. “We were helping on guys too early that their strength isn’t shooting and leaving shooters open. We were letting guys who drive get to their strong hand and we have to do a better job of that.”

Freshman forward Norchad Omier is averaging 12.3 points and 11.1 rebounds per game for ASU. Fields (12.1) and senior guard Marquis Eaton (10.3) also have double-figure scoring averages.

ASU had 34 turnovers in its first series with ULM, including 12 from Fields, who had only 16 turnovers in the first seven games combined.

“We have to take care of the ball and turnovers have been high. Caleb has been very uncharacteristic with the plays he’s made,” Balado said. “He’s watched a lot of film over the last 12 days. I expect to see a different Caleb Fields and Marquis Eaton this weekend.”

Harrison and Ozier average 13.1 and 12.6 points, respectively for ULM. Guard Josh Nicholas scored 42 points over two games last weekend as the Warhawks lost twice at home to Texas-Arlington, falling 77-64 and 75-74.

Balado said his first practice of the season with everyone on the roster healthy took place Jan. 7. While he said the additional practice time was helpful, it’s not what he would prefer in January.

“Practice is great – don’t give me wrong, it gives you an opportunity to go back to basics – but you have to play games. That’s how you can tell who can make shots when the lights are on,” Balado said.

“Figuring out a rotation is the hardest thing. That’s been the thing that’s been the most frustrating because when you play limited games, you can’t really get a set rotation. Every game you’re trying to figure out who can play how many minutes and when. We look forward to playing this weekend.”