So, what now for Red Wolves men’s basketball?

Troy vs. Arkansas State March 2, 2023 Sun Belt Conference Men's Basketball Championship at the Pensacola Bay Center, Pensacola Florida. (Jimmie Mitchell)

It feels like a sad reach to say that the last five games of Red Wolves basketball was an entertaining view. Three of those games were victories. One was a nine point loss to the eventual Sun Belt champions, the Louisiana Cajuns. The last was a rollercoaster defeat to Troy that ended what was mostly a disappointing season. A fun five games! Against twenty-eight miserable-to-fairly-fair outings.

There wasn’t much to celebrate. The year began with a season ending injury to Mak Manciel, believed to be the most promising of Mike Balado’s newcomers. Out-of-conference losses including a home embarrassment to Prairie View and a stunner at Central Arkansas, who would finish the year 9-22. Antwon Jackson, a major contributor to last year’s 18-win season, played all of two minutes in 2022-23. Caleb London, injured most of of last season, was also injured most of this season.

Conference play opened with a pleasant road win over Old Dominion, which was followed by 10 straight losses. In that time, the Red Wolves collected more injuries: Malcolm Farrington, Alaaeddine Boutayeb and Avery Felts would all get dinged. The team’s field general, Caleb Fields, played a significant amount of the season with a broken wrist. At times, Balado barely had enough scholarship players to field a starting five.

The Red Wolves finished 13-20; next to last in the Sun Belt. Where does a program go from that?

We Can Build a Team Around Izaiyah Nelson and Terrance Ford Jr

Nelson, a 6’10” forward with a bottomless appetite for blocking shots, led the Red Wolves in field goal percentage (52.5%). Ford averaged nearly 11 points on the season, but caught on fire at the end, averaging 16 points in his last five and scoring better than 20 twice in that span. Great teams need a man who can dominate inside the paint and a shooter that can score from anywhere on the floor. Ford and Nelson could become a dangerous tandem in the Sun Belt.

Will Nelson and Ford be in Jonesboro Next Year?

Man, who knows? After watching Desi Sills and Norchad Omier bail last year’s roster (and perform well at their respective landing places at Kansas State and Miami), fans are reflexively bracing for another round of defections. This is the Transfer Portal Era, baby, and NIL money talks.

Did the Red Wolves have a “Signature Moment” this year?

One is tempted to look at the second half collapse at UCA as a signature moment, but why dwell on something so profoundly dark? Nah, how about the dunk Caleb Fields that put the cap on a 73-57 win over Coastal Carolina?

The Red Wolves NET Ranking of 282 was not the Sun Belt’s worst

Heck, it wasn’t even the Sun Belt’s second worst. Or third! The Red Wolves finished ahead of Coastal Carolina (294), ULM (293) and Georgia State (290) this season. Celebrate the small victories, especially when small victories are the only victories you have.

Who Else Looks Promising for the Red Wolves?

In this dumb age of carefree portal-ing, this kind of exercise looks as pointless as a off-brand Thigh Master. But I like the pain. Avery Felts had his moments – not just as a three-point sharpshooter, but also as a guy who’s gained enough size to push into the paint. Boutayeb, the lanky seven-plus-footer, flashed some potential by displaying a soft-handed shooting touch, and 6’6″ forward Julian Lual finished with some strong minutes. Malcolm Farrington, oft injured in the second half of the season, dominated behind the three-line at times, but also disappeared for stretches, too.

One assumes that Caleb Fields, entering 2023-2024 as a senior, will be back for A-State. Fields led the Red Wolves in points (11.4) and assists (4.6) while taking a terrific beating night after night. Fields may never become a rockstar baller, but his grit and toughness are inspiring.

The $187,500 Question: Will Mike Balado Survive the Off Season

When asked about his plans for the off season, Balado said that he and his staff would proceed as usual – evaluating the roster before hitting the old recruiting trail. But is the Balado Era over in Jonesboro? With an 82–100 overall record, the Red Wolves have treaded water in the six seasons Balado has captained the ship, leading to a growing grumble for change.

Because the Red Wolves failed to win ten conference games, didn’t win the Sun Belt Tournament, and aren’t likely to receive an at-large bid to the NCAA or NIT tournament, the buyout on Balado’s contract was reduced by 50% – to $187,500. If newly anointed Athletic Director Vice Chancellor for Intercollegiate Athletics Jeff Purinton is itching to make a change at head coach, now is the time.

Game action during Game Four of the Sun Belt Men’s Basketball Championship between Troy and Arkansas State at Pensacola Bay Center on March 2, 2023 in Pensacola, Florida. (Photograph by AJ Henderson / Sun Belt Conference)

But is it possible that Balado is on more solid ground than conventional wisdom would have us believe? Balado did deliver perhaps the very best player Jonesboro has ever put on the hardwood in Norchad Omier. True, he would eventually lose Omier to Miami, but Balado’s recruiting has yielded interesting players, including Sills, Nelson, Ford and the yet-to-be-seen Manciel. Balado can argue that injuries prevented A-State from seeing the team’s true abilities, and that another year would yield better results.

It’s all in Purinton’s hands, God help him.