Red Wolves Basketball to the Rescue?

Every year, CBS Sports posts a preseason ranking featuring 358 college basketball programs from 32 programs. It’s a yeoman’s job that gives guys like me something to post about. Thanks, CBS!

The Sun Belt, a middling mid-major basketball power, has underperformed for several years now. However, CBS offers this nugget, contained in its “preview capsule” of Appalachian State.

Seems like the Sun Belt is going to take a collective step forward, and a team like App State speaks to that.

CBS Sports

Well, okay then! I’m all for a “collective step forward,” even if that step carries with it Appalachian State (whom CBS ranks at 142). After all, conference play is what kills our NET rankings, and the only way those ranking improve is if the Sun Belt improves as a while.

Ranked 196th on CBS’ list are the Red Wolves, directed for the fifth year by Mike Balado, who recently sat down with me for an episode of FunBelt Podcast. Coach Balado, bubbling with a new basketball floor and fresh jerseys, is excited about the program’s direction. The CBS preview capsule seems to guardedly mimic that enthusiasm.

There might be 35 teams fortunate enough to be returning five starters following  a pandemic-afflicted season. These Red Wolves are one such team, but the starting five won’t remain the same, because Desi Sills — via those Arkansas Razorbacks — has joined the fold. Big-time Sun Belt weapon. 

CBS Sports

It’s nice that somebody as influential as CBS noticed the details. Yes, the Red Wolves return nearly everyone, with walk-on freshman Nicholas Tingling and transfer junior Desi Sills as the only newcomers. But is Sills really the “big-time Sun Belt weapon” CBS projects the 6’2″ guard to be?

“He’s been a gigantic addition to our program,” insisted Balado, who wants to return Sills to his comfort zone. “As a high school player and during his first year at Arkansas, I thought Desi was a real high level scorer. That was something he really wanted to do, and his last two years at Arkansas, he wasn’t that. Our system allows guards to be good.”

Sills return to the Delta, where he was a high school state champion with the Jonesboro High Hurricane, wasn’t instantly facilitated. It was, in fact, an exercised in relationship building from Coach Balado. “Desi was already committed to the other school when I took the (A-State) job. I saw him play at high school, he had such a great career. I was always drawn to the way he played.

When he’d come back in the summer, I’d let him use our facilities. He could use the weight room; play pickup with our guys. When I heard he was in the transfer portal, we reached out right away.”

Sills joins his old battery mate Marquis Eaton and Sun Belt Freshman of the Year at Arkansas State, adding a level of experience and skills that Coach Balado hasn’t enjoyed in his previous four years. However, it was the program’s raw inexperience that enable Balado to evolve as a coach last season.

Desi Sills is project to be an impact player for the Red Wolves

“I knew at the beginning of the year that we had eight new players,” said Coach Balado, “and with COVID, the last thing we needed for out team was to have more adversity. I knew going in that this team needed somebody patient and somebody to teach them and not lose their mind.”

Balado, who is known to erupt spectacularly on the bench during games, saw an opportunity to build the team he wanted, and he decided to roll with the team’s enthusiasm and greenness. There was something different about the 2020-21 team. They knew their roles; embraced their roles. With the tenacious Omier on the inside gobbling up boards, the shooters had more second chances. The ridiculous scoring droughts faded away. Young role players like Malcom Farrington and Antwon Jackson delivered off-the-bench value. Caleb Fields added weight and a new inside presence. There seemed to be more consistency. More growth.

“In the past we had guys who been with me multiple years that would stop making the same mistakes and they continued to and that’s what made me crazy. When (last year’s team) made mistakes, it was purely a mistake because they didn’t know.”

But now they know. And Red Wolves’ fans are calling Balado to deliver. But what does that delivery look like, exactly? Last season, Arkansas State finished 11-13, losing four of its last five. This year’s non-con is a mixture of SWAC funk (UAPB, Mississippi Valley State), an interesting home match with Air Force, and potential away bodybag matches with Texas Tech and Illinois. Meanwhile, the Sun Belt conference is, as CBS put it, taking a collective step forward. Is it unrealistic to expect this team to compete in the Sun Belt West?

That would be something. Red Wolves fans have endured the slings and arrows of a disappointing football season (on top of several unsavory baseball and basketball seasons). The fans need something now. Mike Balado and this familiar band of ballers are in position to pull A-State sports fans out of mediocrity’s sad orbit.

We should be in for quite a ride.

PHOTO CREDITS: Arkansas State University Athletics