Does Arkansas State have any shot at turning the season around?

Red Wolves Basketball starts Sun Belt conference play 1-7

When Batesville hoops legend Izzy Higginbottom transferred from Missouri to Arkansas State this off-season, it was quite a coup for newly minted head coach Destinee Rogers, who looked to build a team in her own image after taking over for Matt Daniel last season. For her part, Higginbottom has delivered – 15 points and four assists per game. But the Red Wolves as a whole are 5-10 and have opened conference play 0-4.

“[The team] wants to figure out what it takes to win,” said Coach Rogers during the weekly presser. “Sometimes, as a coach, you have to teach the kids how to win. Maybe they haven’t been part of winning programs. Maybe they don’t know what it looks like to win. I’ve been part of six championships. I know what it looks like. I know what it takes. There’s one word to describe it, and that’s ‘work.'”

Meanwhile, the men aren’t faring much better. After starting the season 8-5 without anything resembling a resounding victory, the Red Wolves are 1-3 in conference with a win over Old Dominion. The road victory against the Monarchs was fairly impressive (since that loss, ODU has rebounded with victories over Louisiana and Georgia Southern). But blowout losses to ULM, South Alabama and Troy pulled Arkansas State back into its crater. Coach Balado sees the development of the team’s beneath-the-rim players being key to the rest of the season.

“(El_Sheikh, Nelson and Boutayeb) got to get a little bit better offensively,” said Coach Balado during the presser. “The more we score at the post, the better our peritemeter shooting.”

While both coaches positives emerging, the question is: Can the Red Wolves salvage this season? The problem with the women’s team isn’t the offense – Higginbottom leads a team that’s third in the conference for scoring. The concern is that the Red Wolves allow a whopping 73 points per contest, dead last in the Sun Belt. Rogers’ squad also ranks last in the SBC for defensive field goal percentage, and near last for three-pointers allowed. Can anybody play defense for Coach Rogers?

For the men, reliable shooting has been an ongoing issue. While the Red Wolves did shoot 51% in the loss against the Warhawks, the team shot a frustrating 28% against the Jaguars, and followed that up with a 33% performance against Troy. Outside shooting has cooled considerably, with Arkansas State nailing just one out of 4 three pointers the last two contests. Like the women, the men have trouble defending the perimeter (Red Wolves rank last in the SBC for defending the three). Rebounding is abysmal. Free throw shooting – once the Red Wolves’ greatest strength and a certified game closer – is now just 10th best in the Sun Belt. Norchad Omier and Marquis Eaton are clearly missed.

Pointing out the shortcomings of both teams does little to solve their problems – Coaches Rogers and Balado have access to the same statistics as the rest of us. But can we see a glimmer of hope?

It’s obvious to me that the Men is an inexperienced team with substantial raw talents that have yet to be fully forged inside the crucible of a full season. Take 7’2″ center Alaaeddine Boutayeb, the Florida State transfer. Boutayeb can shoot and defend, but he clearly needs time to develop the subtler aspects of the game. The same can be said for 6’10” forward Izaiyah Nelson, a shot blocking machine who also commits too many goal-tends and flies off the handle when the moment gets a bit too hot. Nelson and Boutayeb could be impact players. They’re deepest impact may not be felt this season.

However, we may see more impact from freshman Terrence Ford, who has cracked the starting line-up and is growing in confidence. Additionally, 6’8″ forward Omar El-Sheikh has certainly flashed double-double ability, though his work at the free throw line has resembled a horror show. Imagine what might happen should El-Sheikh increased his FT% from 60% to 75%. Imagine Avery Felts and Malcolm Farrington becoming consistent perimeter threats. It doesn’t feel that far away.

For the Women, it does well to remember that Coach Rogers is a first-time head coach whose leading rebounder is 6’1″ guard Annaliese Griffen (8.8 rpg). The teams biggest body is 6’3″ forward/center Melodie Kapinga. Griffen and Kapinga represent two of Rogers’ five six-foot-and-over players. Meanwhile, James Madison (leading the Sun Belt) features eleven 6-foot or better players, two of which are 6’4″. The Red Wolves aren’t getting any bigger this season.

In my opinion (which is far from expert), Red Wolves fans will have to exercise more patience for Coach Rogers as she builds her team. The roster is very young – ten players who are either freshmen or sophomores. Finding size should be a priority for Rogers. In the meantime, this young roster will use this season to build experience.

PHOTO CREDIT: Carla Wehmeyer with some edit from me