The Sun Belt Conference holds some clout in college football. Louisiana and Coastal Carolina are both currently ranked, and Appalachian State has come on strong recently. Unfortunately for the Arkansas State Red Wolves, this clout hasn’t quite transferred to basketball.
In 2020-21, Arkansas State went 11-13 (7-8) and took fourth in the Sun Belt West Division. They were led by homegrown guard Marquis Eaton and Nicaraguan forward Norchad Omier. Omier averaged 12.6 PPG and 12.3 RPG last year, the third-most rebounds per game in all of college basketball.
The Sun Belt made an interesting scheduling decision last year that I wish more conferences had adopted. Each team scheduled four games against the teams in their division while only playing the teams in the other division once. Four games against each division opponent is a bit much, but I would love to see other conferences move toward this going forward. This minimizes contact between the teams and eases COVID-19 contact tracing.
Arkansas State didn’t make it to any tournaments last year, and both KenPom and Bart Torvik had them ranked at 220 or below. However, the Red Wolves do appear to have improved this season.
One thing in Arkansas State’s favor is that it returned all of its starters from last year. That was enough for Torvik’s model to rank them as the 167th best team in college basketball. Sure, that’s not great, but it’s an improvement.
In their opener, the Red Wolves’ beat Division II Harding 81-55. Junior guard Desi Sills, a transfer from the University of Arkansas, led the way with 21 points. Omier had 15 points and 12 rebounds.
The Red Wolves lack size in the frontcourt. Keyon Wesley, a 6-foot-9, 176-pound forward, is the tallest player on the roster. Antwon Jackson, a 6-foot-7, 280-pound forward, could be a threat on the boards but is unlikely to put up points or block shots.
Kofi Cockburn is suspended, and Illinois will be without him on Friday. Omar Payne and Coleman Hawkins looked comfortable defending Jackson State’s big men without Cockburn, but the backcourt was shaky at times.
Andre Curbelo, Trent Frazier, and Austin Hutcherson – the first, second, and third string point guards, respectively – sat out Tuesday’s opener. Da’Monte Williams, Alfonso Plummer, and even Coleman Hawkins handled the point for much of the Jackson State game. It didn’t look great.
The Illini will be heavy favorites to beat the Red Wolves. However, if Curbelo and Frazier continue to miss time, it could cost them.