Last season, Scott Cross’ Trojans finished the season 4-10 in conference and didn’t seem to present much of a threat heading into the 2021-2022 season. But Cross does what Cross tends to do, and that’s adapt. Efe Odige, a 6’9″ 240-lb behemoth transfer from UTEP, and freshman assist machine Duke Deen (no relation to teammate Duke Miles) have joined 6’9″ junior Zay Williams in establishing a solid defense that only allows 65 points while gobbling up the Sun Belt conference’s fourth most boards (Williams and Odige both appear the SBC top ten for rebounds). It’s a hell of a turnaround for the Trojans, who find themselves 16-7 overall and one game behind Appalachian State in the Sun Belt standings.
Headed south to Mobile, there’s something wildly off about the NET leading South Alabama Jaguars, a team bursting with transfer talent and prolific scorers, but have lost three straight and find themselves just 5-5 in the Sun Belt. What gives? I’ve peeked into a few Jags games of late, and a problem appears to be extremely cold first half shooting. South Alabama allowed huge first-half leads to Troy, Georgia Southern and Georgia State only to make a furious comeback to fall just short.
A team with Charles Manning Jr. and Jay Jay Chandler should be clobbering the conference. Instead, they’re three games back in the standings. Is this simply a roster of transfer talent still gelling with a new program?
The Red Wolves cross the Alabama border to confront one team that is playing unexpectedly exceptional, and another that is playing puzzlingly poor. Philosophically, this lines up nicely for Arkansas State, who have had Jekyll and Hyde performances these last two weeks. Citizens of the Sun Belt should brace for more entropy.
What we can count on is a cornucopia of rebounds from A-State’s Norchad Omier, currently fourth in the nation in gobbling boards and second in field goal percentage. We can also count on Marquis Eaton nailing freebies – of 68 free throw attempts, his missed all of five. What we can’t count on, with any degree of certainty, is consistent shooting from the menagerie of Red Wolves guards. When Desi Sills and Marquis Eaton are hot, it’s a thing of beauty. When they’re cold, its a total horror show.
However, taking the pressure off Sills and Eaton are major contributors off the bench. Malcolm Farrington and Avery Felts provide outside weapons, and the steadily emerging Antwon Jackson has offered opponents nothing but pain when Omier retires for a breather. Add those assets with a newly healthy Markise Davis, and Mike Balado has a broader menu of scoring options to choose from.
As usual, the urgency for which to win these games remain high for the Red Wolves, who find themselves entwined inside a Sun Belt race that has yet to select a favorite. Arkansas State has split the series on all of its road trips, and while sweeps are terrific, bear in mind that the Red Wolves endure the toughest stretch of games to close out the season (according to avg. opponent NET). How the Red Wolves approach the mystery in Alabama could very well determine the team’s fate.
PHOTO CREDIT: Arkansas State Athletic Department, Meagan Johnson