Red Wolves make first trip to UAPB

Arkansas State’s Desi Sills drives the lane during Saturday’s game against Central Arkansas. The Red Wolves visit Arkansas-Pine Bluff this evening.

JONESBORO — Arkansas State men’s basketball coach Mike Balado said he hasn’t had much trouble convincing his players to look past Arkansas-Pine Bluff’s record.

UAPB came to Jonesboro last season with an 0-5 record and left with a 75-74 victory over ASU. The Golden Lions typically spend much of November and December on the road to bolster their budget, leading to records such as their current 1-9 mark.

Balado said he won’t have to fire up his players for tonight’s game at UAPB.

“They’re pretty self-focused because (UAPB) came into our place and beat us in a game here at home. They’re going to be ready,” Balado said Tuesday. “It’s the same scenario as last year. They came in here, having played all these teams on the road, and they came to us with no wins and they got their first win. This year, they’ve played another tough schedule and played one home game and won it. They have to be looking forward to playing at home.”

ASU (5-2) visits UAPB for the first time this evening. Tipoff at H.O. Clemmons Arena is scheduled for 7 p.m.

The Red Wolves are looking for their third consecutive victory after rolling past Kansas City and Central Arkansas. They shot 53.5 percent in a 66-55 victory over Kansas City and scorched UCA for 56.6 percent shooting in a 95-82 romp last Saturday.

Junior guard Desi Sills has reached double figures in the last three games to boost his team-best scoring average to 14.6 points. Second-year freshman forward Norchad Omier is averaging 13 points per game, while sophomore guard Caleb Fields and senior guard Marquis Eaton are both averaging better than nine points per game.

“Our offense is clicking pretty well. I think that’s because of a couple of things. One, it’s execution, the shots coming at the right time from the right person, and two, guys getting more comfortable with each other,” Balado said.

“Desi was a huge addition for us and he’s getting more comfortable every game, every practice, in our system. I think it’s a culmination of everything – the right lineups out there, the right guys taking the shots at the right time, and executing at a high level.”

Turnovers are a concern; the Red Wolves are averaging more than 15 per game after losing 18 against UCA. Balado said the Golden Lions play high-pressure defense under first-year coach Solomon Bozeman, getting into passing lanes.

“We can’t give them what we call live-ball turnovers where they steal it or get a turnover and go down and score,” Balado said. “We have to be able to set our defense, and it’s hard to set your defense when you turn the ball over. We’ve got to eliminate probably five or six of those, and I think that will help us.”

Senior guard Shawn Williams, a former Maumelle standout who has played for East Carolina, New Mexico State and Nicholls State, averages 15.4 points to lead UAPB. Junior forward Trey Sampson averages 12.4 points and sophomore guard Kylen Milton, who is from Conway, adds 12.3 points per game.

Williams has attempted 84 3-point shots in 10 games, making 31 (.369). He scored 31 points against Portland, 26 against Colorado State and 21 against Iowa State.

“We have to make sure we know where he’s at, at all times, and not let him get any clean looks off ball screens because he’s not only a scorer, but he facilitates for them as well,” Balado said. “He’s their main go-to guy when it comes to plays that they run, especially late in the clock. He’s good. He’s best in the open floor and off ball screens. Our ball screen defense has to be on point.”

While the Red Wolves’ schedule includes only a couple of “guarantee” games – ASU was paid $87,500 for visiting Illinois on Nov. 12 and will receive $85,000 for a Dec. 14 game at Texas Tech – the Golden Lions play all but three of their non-conference games away from home.

UAPB’s losses came against Creighton, Colorado State, Wyoming, Portland, Seattle, Cal-Santa Barbara, Pacific, Iowa State and Baylor. The Golden Lions visit Texas next week.

“They’ve played a tough schedule, but I can tell you one thing, they have some talented players individually,” Balado said. “They play extremely hard on defense.”

UAPB defeated Arkansas Baptist 75-70 in its first home game Nov. 29. The Golden Lions also host Ecclesia College on Dec. 18.

Balado said redshirt freshman guard Avery Felts remains in COVID-19 protocol, but should return for Saturday’s game at Mississippi Valley State. Freshman guard Caleb London is expected to miss the remainder of the season after undergoing shoulder surgery last week.

Tonight’s game is the first of three in a row on the road for the Red Wolves, whose next home game is Dec. 19 against Air Force.

“Road victories are tough to come by no matter who you play,” Balado said. “This game, I told our team, is just like Central Arkansas, you have to throw out the records. It means a little more for in-state teams.”