Relationship: It’s Complicated (with Arkansas State Basketball)
Red Wolves hoops is hard to love, but harder to quit.
I want to fall in love with Red Wolves basketball. Head-over-heels. Make gooby smooch-smooch sounds every time I catch a game on ESPN3. Write glowing previews with a glitter stick.
But it’s hard, man. Long have I suffered. We’re talking years and years of losing seasons and expectations falling comically short. With all the attention (and money) paid to football, the basketball program has staggered onto the floor every winter only to be put out of its misery too early every spring. A brief burst of sun delivered by the year-long Grant McCasland Era now seems more cruel than reprieve.
Mike Balado took over for McCasland after the latter decided he’d rather live in Denton, Texas. Balado brought with him a pedigree from Louisville and a pro-wrestler’s mentality, but the program needed more than a body slam. It needed a long-term overhaul and a major attitude adjustment. Oh yeah, and maybe some size in the middle and better perimeter shooting.
Year three into Balado’s reign, the program may (or may not) be evolving into something competitive. We don’t really know. The team has some interesting players. Junior forward JJ Mathews provides some size inside, senior guard Canberk Kus can score when hot, and junior guard Marquis Eaton is TNT when he protects the ball. The team is young and not especially big, which means hustle will be essential – a trait Balado inspired last season. But with leading scorer Ty Cockfield gone, who will take over in crunch time?
I dropped in on the season opener with UA-Monticello to ace some answers.
Malik Brevard is a hoss.
During team warm-ups, he looks like the final boss of a kung-fu Nintendo game. He’s a granite statue, utterly still. Only his eyes move – until a ball bounces his way, and then Brevard rumbles into the paint like like a riot. I glance over at Arkansas-Monticello and feel a little bad for them until I remember (with much chagrin) that the Boll Weevils beat the Red Wolves a couple years ago in an exhibition game, and my desire for mercy evaporates. Screw them.
The Boll Weevils are small but quick, and take a 10-9 lead before the first time out. Red Wolves don’t mix well with small and quick. This isn’t the Boll Weevils’ Super Bowl, but in the early going, they’re clearly hyped, matching the taller Red Wolves rebound for rebound.
Tonight, Arkansas State true freshman Caleb Fields gets the start at guard (one of three on the floor). He’s listed at an even 6-feet, but his hair gives him another five inches at least. He’s also fast. Maybe a little jittery. He’s fouled hard and doinks both off the rim.
Canberk Kus – the Turkish Tornado (which I just made up) – is on fire. He has seven early points, all jumpers. I like Kus, because he might give you 15 points, or he might not. You never know. Tonight seems like 15 points.
Head coach Mike Balado is not wearing a sweater tonight, which is too bad. He really makes it work. Year One, he wore it all the time. Something must have happened, because he stopped wearing it. Instead, he’s donned a pearl gray suit and he’s doing some John Brady-level yelling. It’s well earned. The Red Wolves lead, but it’s a mushy lead. The fans are restless, but the band is pretty good.
The ball bounces off Antwon Jackson’s hands and caroms into the stands. Brevard boings a layup off the side of the backboard. Jerry Johnson doinks a wide open three. I predict we’re about three minutes from seeing Volcano Balado, the hyper-furious version of Balado that appears when all goes awry. Red Wolves lead 26-19.
Red Wolves are 1-8 from the free throw line with about a minute left in the half. Every miss is met with an expression of good-natured disbelief from the party responsible. The Red Wolves finish the half 1-9 from the free throw line.
Last season, the Red Wolves never opened the second half hot. It was like the team spent halftime eating Subway tuna subs. Tonight, the Boll Weevils score five quick points before Kus hits a jumper (15 here we come!).
2:30 minutes into the second quarter, the Boll Weevils tie the game.
Sneakily, Christian Willis is slowly morphing into lava. Without warning, he has 10 points. His sustained heat warms up the rest of the Red Wolves, and suddenly Kus and Mathews are Magic and Vlad. Score! Score! Arkansas State takes a 10 point lead and the fans feel something tingling and strange: life.
Ten minutes remaining, the intensity picks up for both teams. However, the Red Wolves size is clearly overwhelming the Boll Weevils. One Boll Weevil attempts to square up against Antwon Jackson and will likely spend the bus ride back to Monticello inventorying his many regrets.
Red Wolves up 50-35.
Melo Eggelston is not eligible to play until December, but he’s acting as Hype Man on the bench. He jumps out of his chair and just starts hyping. He’s an ally-oop of personality.
“PUSH!” Coach Balado implores. “PUSH!” He is determined to deliver this win into the world. He’ll get no argument from the Boll Weevils, who look ready to binge-watch two seasons of Succession on the way back to Monticello. Eaten earns the “and 1” to deepen the Boll Weevils’ chagrin.
Kus gets his 15, and tacks on a few more. In fact, four Red Wolves are in double figures: Willis, Eaton, Mathews and Kus. Nice even distribution of points. Red Wolves win 65-49, and while it wasn’t the most exciting victory, there was a relentlessness that was reassuring (if not visually appealing). The team sprinkled 20 assists into the stat-line, which was refreshing. Maybe this is the team that finally makes noise in the Sun Belt.
Turns out, I just can’t quit Red Wolves Basketball.
A former notary public, Jeremy Harper is a professional writer and Chief Instigator for Storm the Castle Creative. He spends much of his free time staring blankly into space.