The Sun Belt conference media and coaches didn’t expect much out of the Arkansas State basketball team in 2016-17, and it’s hard to blame them. The Red Wolves are under the direction of first-year head coach Grant McCasland, went 11-20 last year, and return just two starters from that team.
A 10th-place finish in a 12-team league seemed like a fair spot for a preseason poll.
Yet somehow as December begins, Arkansas State is 7-1, with victories at Georgetown, Southern Conference favorite Chattanooga, and Patriot League favorite Lehigh.
Only five players from last year’s roster returned for McCasland this season, but he inherited a talented backcourt duo in Devin Carter and Donte Thomas, who combined to average 28.5 points per game last season.
The other returners: guard C.J. Foster, who sat out last season, forward Christian Davis (1.5 ppg, 1.4 rpg), who was sparingly used, and guard Connor Kern, who only played 85 total minutes.
McCasland had successful tenures as a head coach in the junior college and Division II ranks and spent five years as an assistant under Scott Drew at Baylor. But taking over the Red Wolves presented a true challenge. He had to go to work on the recruiting trail immediately to find players that fit his uptempo style of play.
Deven Simms, an NJCAA All-American, who averaged 20.3 points and 10.1 rebounds per game at Connors State College, was the biggest coup for McCasland. Point guard Rashad Lindsey and forward Tamas Bruce were also added in the fold to provide badly needed experience and depth. True freshmen Salif Boudie, a forward from Africa, and guard Jahmiah Simmons, originally from the Virgin Islands, added length and versatility across the roster.
Somehow, McCasland pieced a team together.
His offensive style is a perfect fit for backcourt players that love to push it in transition. With an experienced backcourt tandem in Carter and Thomas to go along Foster, Kern, Lindsey, Simms and Simmons, the backcourt rotation has been the heart and soul of the Red Wolves’ fast start.
Against Georgetown, Arkansas State’s spacing was outstanding and it allowed its playmakers the freedom to penetrate at will and gave the Hoyas problems on the glass. 10 offensive rebounds gave the Red Wolves more possessions, and seemed to visibly frustrate the bigger Hoyas all night.
Thomas and Lindsey are the primary ball handlers, and each are adept at getting into the lane to either locate spot-up shooters or finish at the rim. Spacing is the key for Arkansas State to create openings in the half court, and teams have found it hard to defend — the Red Wolves are shooting 51 percent from the field this season, the 10th-best mark nationally.
Simms is a huge piece to the puzzle for McCasland going forward with his four-guard looks, even though he has been used strictly off the bench. His ability to rebound should help the undersized group and present opportunities to start the fast break. Over the past three games, Simms is averaging 17 points and is crafty around the rim.
Bruce had a breakout game against Lehigh, going 5-5 from the field for 10 points in 12 minutes. Along with Boudie and Nelson Nweke, the frontcourt trio will have less pressure to produce offensively given how reliant Arkansas State is on backcourt production.
Seven players average at least 6.5 points per game, and the balance across the roster allows the offense to flow well with multiple scoring options. Carter is the established top scoring option with two 25-point games already, but the unselfishness that McCasland’s squad plays with makes the offense tough to deal with.
Maybe the most impressive area that the Red Wolves have emphasized is the three-point line. Arkansas State is first in the Sun Belt, shooting 41 percent from behind the arc. The Red Wolves also lead the conference in defending the perimeter, only allowing opponents to shoot 24 percent, good for fourth in the country.
McCasland is a known winner and seems to have brought an energy to this program that has his team believing they have a chance to win every time out. With impressive victories away from home already, the Red Wolves will have a few more chances to earn some big victories against Power 5 opponents as they head into Sun Belt play.
A matchup with undefeated TCU under first-year head coach Jamie Dixon looms on Saturday in Fort Worth, and trips to Alabama and Minnesota will serve as stern tests before Arkansas State opens Sun Belt play against Louisiana Lafayette on New Year’s Eve.