Less than a week into last season, Arkansas State played at Georgetown in a game KenPom gave the Hoyas a 98 percent chance of winning. That two percent ended up winning out, as the Red Wolves would hold on for a stunning road victory.
At the time, it was the upset of the year. The college basketball world took notice, and that included Louisville assistant Mike Balado.
“I can remember saying, ‘wow, that’s a big time win for them.’ Going into a school in the Big East and winning on the road is pretty cool,” he said.
Balado had reason to be especially interested. He had been in running for the Arkansas State job when it had opened over the previous offseason. Longtime Baylor assistant Grant McClasland ultimately got the gig, and the Georgetown upset would not be a one-hit wonder in his first season in Jonesboro.
The Red Wolves picked up more impressive non-conference wins against Chattanooga and Lehigh, went 11-7 in the Sun Belt and posted their first 20-plus-win season in 19 years. It looked like a great building block for a first-year coach.
But four months after watching that Georgetown upset from afar, it would be Balado’s program.
McCasland moved on to North Texas and Balado was tapped as his replacement. For seniors Tamas Bruce, Deven Simms and Rashad Lindsey, this offseason must have felt like deja vu. All three had committed out of junior college to McCasland in 2016, yet here they were a year later, having to be re-sold on their school. It wasn’t an easy situation.
“It’s hard because these kids think, ‘who is this guy coming in that didn’t recruit me, who I don’t know?’” Balado said. “I had to do a hard recruiting job on these young men, and when I got to know them well, I’m glad the returners are the guys that stayed because I think they’re going to fit our system perfectly.”
That hard recruiting pitch worked.
Besides freshman guard Jahmiah Simmons — who followed McCasland to UNT — the Red Wolves didn’t lose any significant pieces from last year’s rotation to transfer. This included Lindsey (33.9 MPG, 10.3 PPG), Bruce (15.6 MPG, 5.8 RPG) and Simms (26.6 MPG, 13.4 PPG), whose return arms Balado with an experienced ball-handler (Lindsey), the team’s leading rebounder (Bruce) and the team’s second-leading scorer (Simms).
After playing at the ninth-slowest tempo in the Sun Belt a year ago, they’ll now slot into a system that looks a lot like what Balado was teaching at Louisville.
“With the guys we brought in, plus the guys returning, we can be a high-pressure, up-and-down, fast-paced team. And that’s the system I want to bring in,” he said. “Press after makes, change up presses throughout the game. Playing a lot of guys. Every time I sit down with my staff we always come back and say, ‘okay, who do we start if we play tomorrow?’ And it has changed so much, and that’s a good thing.”
That’ll mean opportunities for senior C.J. Foster and redshirt sophomore Connor Kern, who have now played under three coaches at Arkansas State.
It’ll also mean plenty of minutes for Balado’s five-man recruiting class. Given its importance in the press, he wanted to emphasize length, and added a trio of JuCo players in Grantham Gillard, Tristin Walley and Shaquillo Fritz, who are all taller than 6’5.
“My goal was to get shooting, and length and size,” he said. “Simms is a very talented player that can play three positions, almost four. He plays some at the four, so I’m not against going small if we have to, but I’d rather have length and size out there because it helps in the press. It makes it harder to bring the ball up against guys that are bigger, longer and more athletic.”
Balado also signed Ty Cockfield, a JuCo guard that averaged 7.1 points per game in nine games as a freshman at Stetson in 2015. That experience could help offset the loss of leading scorer and All-Sun Belt second-teamer Devin Carter, as well as starting point guard Donte Thomas.
The final player, and lone freshman, in the class may be most important long term. Marquis Eaton won a state championship at Jonesboro High School, and decided to stay on after initially committing to McCasland. Balado hopes that getting a player that got so much attention locally will lead to more recruiting success within the state.
Regardless of the combination of players on the floor, it’ll be a debut season in Jonesboro that follows right on the heels of a different debut season. Some of the faces on the court will be the same, but the face on the sideline will be different. Even with the coaching turnover, the Red Wolves seem to have the pieces to make that second debut as successful as the first.