JONESBORO — Rivalry week has turned into rivalry weekend for Arkansas State and Arkansas-Little Rock.
Initially scheduled to play twice in four days, the Red Wolves and Trojans are playing back-to-back days after pushing back Wednesday’s game. The teams meet tonight at 7:30 in First National Bank Arena, then head south to Little Rock and the Jack Stephens Center for Saturday’s game at 5 p.m.
Both meetings last season remained in doubt to the end, UALR winning both by three points on its way to the Sun Belt Conference regular-season crown. Close games have been the rule recently in the series with each of the last 10 meetings decided by single digits.
“When you’re playing your rival, like I tell my team, all bets are off. All records are thrown out the window, all momentum is basically thrown out the window when you play a rivalry game,” fourth-year ASU head coach Mike Balado said. “There’s a lot more emotion involved, a little more outside noise. We’re preparing as if it’s a regular conference game, but understanding that there’s a little more at stake, especially with the fan base and that sort of thing.”
The teams are battling for position in the Sun Belt’s West Division, their records more similar at this point than might have been expected before the season.
While ASU (8-9, 5-5 Sun Belt) is in fourth place after being picked fourth in the preseason, UALR (10-9, 6-6 Sun Belt) was widely favored to win the West. The Trojans received nine of 12 first-place votes from league coaches.
Texas State, the surprise leader in the West at 7-3 in the league, won all four meetings with UALR. The Trojans won three of four games against Texas-Arlington, own two victories over Louisiana-Monroe and split two games at Louisiana-Lafayette.
“They’ve got a very good starting five. Ben Coupet is playing really well and they have shooters around him, and their bigs in my opinion are probably the best in the league,” Balado said. “You’ve got Ruot Monyyong, a first-team all-league player, and Nikola Maric, who is a load inside. Their size poses a lot of problems for people, so we have to make sure we rebound and be physical with them.”
Maric, a 6-10, 250-pound junior, is UALR’s leading scorer at 14.5 points per game. Monyyong, a 6-10 senior who was the league’s preseason player of the year, is averaging 12.3 points and 10.9 rebounds per game. Coupet, a 6-7 senior who averages 9.5 points, is shooting nearly 39 percent from the 3-point line.
The Trojans lost a starter before the season when forward Kamani Johnson, who had 32 points and 16 rebounds in last year’s game in Jonesboro, transferred to Arkansas. All-Sun Belt guard Markquis Nowell, who scored 43 points in two games against ASU last season, opted out earlier this week according to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Nowell was averaging 14.3 points per game this season.
“With him in the game, they’re obviously much faster. He’s a huge threat off ball screens,” Balado said of Nowell. “But they’re not going to change much of what they do.”
Balado said the Red Wolves need 6-7 freshman forward Norchad Omier to avoid foul trouble. Omier, the Sun Belt’s leading rebounder at 11.9 per game, has 10 double-doubles and is averaging 13.0 points per game.
Senior guard Marquis Eaton, the team’s leading scorer at 13.1 points per game, was named Sun Belt player of the week after leading the Red Wolves to a weekend sweep of UL Lafayette. Sophomore guard Caleb Fields is adding 12.2 points per game for the Red Wolves, who shot 52.6 percent last weekend against the Ragin’ Cajuns.
ASU’s totals last weekend included 22-of-39 shooting from the 3-point line.
“I feel very confident in the way we’ve grown over the last month. I think their focus has been very good, they’re improving,” Balado said of his team. “They’re locked in and they’re ready to get the end of the conference season underway and continue to play with the same momentum we’ve been playing with over the last two weekends.”
ASU is beginning a stretch that includes five games in nine days. The Red Wolves have a makeup game Tuesday at Texas State before hosting the Bobcats Feb. 19-20.