Are the Red Wolves prepared to take on the jacked-up Sun Belt?

It’s been some time since Sun Belt hoops have flexed so much muscle.

SBC newbie Southern Miss was picked by Sun Belt coaches to finish next-to-dead-last in the conference. The Golden Eagles enter the conference 11-2 and are tied with Marshall, another conference newbie. Meanwhile, James Madison and Troy join the two before-mentioned teams who enjoy sub-100 NET rankings. Of the fourteen teams in the Sun Belt, only the weary Warhawks enter conference play with a sub .500 record.

Are the Red Wolves ready for this kind of smoke?

After executing a comeback win over UA Little Rock on Thursday, the Red Wolves are 8-5 with some bummer losses to Prairie View and Central Arkansas. On the flip side, Arkansas State has won three in a row, so there is momentum when the Red Wolves visit Old Dominion (8-4). I have my Troubles. I also have my Hopes. Balanced journalism is my specialty.

TROUBLING: Red Wolves free throw shooting is a crime against humanity

Last season, nailing free throws was a strength, with Marquis Eaton and Norchad Omier closing out games at the Charity Stripe. This year, the Punishment Line is seeing 66% success from Arkansas State, with oft-fouled starting forward Omar El-Sheikh shooting a grisly 50%. Opponents realize that they can foul Arkansas State late in games and not incur a penalty on the scoreboard.

HOPEFUL: TJ Ford and Omar El-Sheikh are finding their game

When the Red Wolves were down double digits against UALR, it was El-Sheikh who kept Arkansas State within striking distance with frenetic scoring and rebounding. When the distance between scores close, it was freshman TJ Ford slashing into the paint, making the tough layups and drawing the hard fouls. El-Sheikh may be terrible at the Punishment Line, but these two are poised to become stars in Jonesboro.

TROUBLING: Red Wolves shooting is frustrating to watch

At 46%, the Red Wolves rank ninth in the SBC for field goal percentage. The three point shooting is a bit better – 34% and sixth best in the Belt. It’s been some time since the Red Wolves had a fire outside shooter who could take over the game (Ty Cockfield is the last guy I can remember counting on to light up the scoreboard). However, Avery Felts appears to be growing in confidence behind the arc – just in time.

On campus statue commemorating Red Wolves field goal percentage

HOPEFUL: Izaiyah Nelson could be something special

The 6’10” forward is averaging nearly a block and a half per game and is second on the team in gobbling rebounds. The catch? He’s just as likely to pick up a technical as he is to deliver a block. If Nelson can martial his emotions for 40 minutes, he could develop into an insane inside presence.

TROUBLING: Arkansas State is still looking for a Paint Monster

The Red Wolves are not a rebounding team, particular on offensive boards, where Arkansas State ranks a dismal 12th in the conference. Last season, rebounding was Omier’s job. This season, the occupation remains largely unfilled, though El-Sheikh certainly showed a flash of potential on Thursday by gobbling up 15 boards against the Trojans.

Questions I Would Like Answered

Will Alaaeddine Boutayeb develop into a useful rebounder and inside presence?

Where is Antwon Jackson?

Can Markise Davis and Malcolm Farrington find a consistent stroke?

Can Caleb Fields possibly avoid injuries given his physical style of play?

Can El-Sheikh improve his free throw shooting?

So What Do We Think?

When challenged, the Red Wolves didn’t perform particular well this OOC season, enduring a blow-out loss to Air Force and a fairly lackluster defeat to UC-Davis. However, these Red Wolves have shown some resiliency of late, being down in the first half in each of its last three games only to come away winners. Those are some “character victories” that should give the Red Wolves a jolt of confidence come conference play.

Photo Credit: Elijah Parker and A-State Athletics