All In: Red Wolves basketball coach Mike Balado is ready to show his hand

Listen to my interview with Coach Mike Balado here.

The Red Wolves have a nice new basketball floor. The big Red Wolf is gone; the block stAte is back. Lots of people – especially the old-timers traditionalists – approve of the design, which is refreshing because the fans have been in an extended period of grouch for the last two decades.

“From the outset of this project, we emphasized this was an opportunity to roll out a high-visibility product that really captured the unique elements of our brand, school colors and marks,” said A-State Athletic Director Vice Chancellor for Intercollegiate Athletics Tom Bowen.

The new floor was a priority for Bowen, who arrived in the Spring of 2021 from the University of Memphis, a peer institution that has enjoyed significant success in men’s basketball. Something about the current floor bugged Bowen. I have no idea what. Was it full of cracks? Was it made of subpar lumber? Dunno.

It’s a new floor for a new era of Red Wolves basketball – which on the surface sounds like a strange statement. After all, not only is Mike Balado returning for a fifth year of head coaching, the roster is nearly identical to last year’s (thanks COVID-19). However, it’s the “roster familiarity” that gives this Red Wolves team so much punch. Sun Belt Freshman Player of the Year Norchad Omier returns. So do productive starters Caleb Fields and Marquis Eaton. Antwon Jackson is back. Keyon Wesley is back. Listen, I’m telling you, everybody is back. Overall, the Red Wolves return 97.9 percent of scoring and 97.1 percent of minutes played last season, sixth-most nationally in each category entering the 2021-22 season.

But the most significant return to Jonesboro is Razorbacks transfer Desi Sills, the junior 6’2″ shooting guard who is a former state champion at Jonesboro High School.

“I grew up, born and raised here, and I want to put the city of Jonesboro on my back,” stated Sills during his team introduction earlier this year. It’s been awhile since the program has put Jonesboro on its back – possibly not since Grant McCasland led the Red Wolves to a 20-12 record, but probably not since the team made its first and only NCAA appearance in 1999. That’s a long time to be grouchy.

The Desi Sills and Mike Balado Show

Behind the scenes, there is a real hope that this season will be a special one in Jonesboro. Partly because Norchad Omier is one of the most exciting talents to ply his dunks in Jonesboro since Devin Carter (with a far higher ceiling). But it’s the addition of Sills that offers the most promise and intrigue. The former 3-star shooting guard only averaged 7.5 points last season for the Sweet 16 Razorbacks last season, but this seemed more like a lack of fit than talent.

“If we had the choice between getting a Big Man and getting Desi Sills,” said one person inside the program, “we take Desi Sills.”

What Sills brings to the table transcends mere technical ability on the court. For many in Jonesboro, Sills represents a glory only a high school state championship can give to a community. He, along with former Jonesboro High Hurricane Marquis Eaton, give local fans a sequel to the magic 2017 when the two led Jonesboro to a 32-0 record and the state title.

Nostalgia won’t win games, though. Last year’s team finished 11-13 (7-8) – Balado’s fourth non-winning season. However, you could see that there was something different about the 2020-21 version of the Red Wolves. They played with cohesion. They began to reduce mistakes. Those painfully long scoring droughts melted away.

And they were young. Real young. The roster featured seven freshman, many of whom contributed significant minutes. Today, these guys return to the (brand new) court a year older, wiser, a physically mature. Malcom Farrington, Avery Felts and Caleb London will provide a layer of competent bench depth the Red Wolves have desperately needed.

One guy who is expected to turn heads – Lazar Grbovic, the big 6’8″ Serbian who was limited in part last season by a pesky language barrier. “He’s really going to surprise you,” said Balado in the Spring. Omier led the team in rebounds last season. Grbovic and returning 6’9″ junior forward Keyon Wesley could become the tenacious paint presence Arkansas State needs to close out games.

The key to the season, however, isn’t necessarily Norchad or Sills or if Grbovic has mastered the English language. The key lies with the Red Wolves’ two dynamic veteran guards – Marquis Eaton and Caleb Fields. Eaton, a Super Senior like human adrenaline shot Christian Willis, is the court’s patriarch, bringing five years of experience to the starting five. Fields, who added a new level of inside toughness to his game las season, is no longer the up-and-comer. His time is now. With Sills acclimating to the team and Omier still honing his game, the team will rely on the Law Firm of Eaton & Fields to provide the leadership (and points) to deliver wins.

It’s a new floor for an old team with the same expectations. But this season, we have something unfamiliar; we have a chance.

PHOTO CREDIT: Arkansas State Athletic Department