JONESBORO -- The 2019-20 season is the first in a new era for the Arkansas State University women's basketball team.
The past 20 seasons were guided by Coach Brian Boyer, who was named Sun Belt Conference Coach of the Year four times, led the Red Wolves to the WNIT seven times and won three regular-season league titles.
Arkansas State women’s basketball schedule
Nov. 6;Central Baptist College;TBA
Nov. 9;at Tulsa;2 p.m.
Nov. 13;Southeast Missouri State;7 p.m.
Nov. 22;at DePaul;11 a.m.
Nov. 23;Miami/North Carolina A&T (Chicago);TBA
Nov. 26;at Murray State;6 p.m.
Nov. 30;at San Diego State;3 p.m.
Dec. 9;UAPB;7 p.m.
Dec. 14;at Memphis;2 p.m.
Dec. 18;at Baylor;12 p.m.
Dec. 29;at Louisiana Tech;2 p.m.
Jan. 2;at Texas-Arlington*;7 p.m.
Jan. 4;at Texas State*;2 p.m.
Jan. 9;Georgia State*;7 p.m.
Jan. 11;Georgia Southern*;1 p.m.
Jan. 16;Appalachian State*;7 p.m.
Jan. 18;at UALR*;2 p.m.
Jan. 23;at Louisiana-Lafayette*;6 p.m.
Jan. 25;Coastal Carolina*;4 p.m.
Feb. 1;at Louisiana-Monroe*;12 p.m.
Feb. 6;at Georgia State*;5 p.m.
Feb. 8;at Georgia Southern*;1 p.m.
Feb. 13;Texas Arlington*;7 p.m.
Feb. 15;Texas State*;4 p.m.
Feb. 20;at South Alabama*;11 a.m.
Feb. 22;at Troy*;2 p.m.
Feb. 28;UALR*;7 p.m.
Mar. 5;South Alabama*;7 p.m.
Mar. 7;Troy*;4 p.m.
*Sun Belt Conference game
Enter Matt Daniel, who's been out of coaching for two seasons but has made his return to the sport in the same town he was once a star high school basketball player in and in a state he's coached in at different levels before.
The 43-year-old said he's "at a whole lot more peace" more than ever before in his career.
"I'm having a blast. I feel like I'm myself again being back on the sideline," said Daniel, who was the head women's coach at Marshall in his previous stop from 2012-17 and at Central Arkansas from 2008-12. And once upon a time, he was the head boys coach at Pulaski Academy in 2003-04.
"You really don't realize how much you're going to miss something until you're not doing it anymore, until it's gone, and you don't appreciate it as much until you're doing it again. That's kind of where I'm at. We have a lot of room for growth, but I'm having a blast trying to get us there."
Where Daniel is trying to lead the Red Wolves is a place the women's basketball team has never gone -- the NCAA Tournament -- and he believes ASU can eventually get there.
"I think that we have the things in place here that we could do that. I'm not scared to say that at all," Daniel said. "I'm not promising anything, but I promise you we're going to give you the effort it takes to try and get it done.
"And if you look at the history, I know what this is like. This is not my first rodeo doing this. We've built two programs that are now built to win and built to last. We look for here to be no different."
But the immediate goals for ASU are to put a more competitive product on the court. After three consecutive seasons of at least 20 victories and WNIT trips from 2013-16, which also included two outright regular-season Sun Belt titles, the Red Wolves have failed to produce a winning campaign in the last three seasons.
ASU's best finish the past three years was in 2017-18 when the Red Wolves went 15-15 overall and 10-8 in Sun Belt play. Last season, ASU was 12-18 overall, 7-11 in the league and bounced out of the first round of the Sun Belt Tournament for the second consecutive year.
"They know what it's like to get hit in the mouth," Daniel said of his team.
Daniel has taken over a program that is loaded with upperclassmen -- 13, to be exact. Three of the 16 players on ASU's roster are underclassmen.
The Red Wolves also returned four of their top five leading scorers from last season, including junior forward Peyton Martin, sophomore guard Jireh Washington, junior guard Morgan Wallace and senior guard Payton Tennison. Other key reserve players, including senior guards Jada Ford and Starr Taylor, sophomore forward Trinitee Jackson, junior forward Kayla Williams and senior forward Madison Heckert, are also back.
Having plenty of experience was a welcome sign for Daniel when he first took over as head coach, but he admitted his team still had some growing up to do in the offseason.
"When I got here, we had an old roster ... but we weren't really mature, and as you know, age and maturity don't always align," Daniel said. "But we've gotten more mature. Our roster has matured quite a bit actually, and they're still learning the way we like to do things and I'm learning from them the way they like to do things."
One of Daniel's biggest tasks in Year 1 is helping ASU improve defensively, despite admittedly lacking a ton of size.
Last season, the Red Wolves ranked 11th in the Sun Belt in scoring defense, giving up 72.6 points per game, 10th in field goal percentage allowed (44%) and 11th in rebounding defense.
Offensively, under Daniel, the Red Wolves also have made adjustments to the playing style and are still fine-tuning.
"Last year, it was really like a slow pace," Washington said. "But this year, we're playing on a different level, like another different speed, and that's what I like -- playing our game, our own game, but still letting [Daniel] coach us. I like the way we play."
ASU opens the season against Central Baptist College on Nov. 6 in Jonesboro. No one is itching to get going more so than the person who's been away from the sport for two years and is charged with leading this rebuild for ASU.
"I'm settled in here. I'm coaching the game that I love, the way that I love to coach it," Daniel said. "There's no other agenda of chasing jobs or pursuing. I want to do something here that's never been done -- that's go to the NCAA Tournament."
Sports on 10/25/2019
Print Headline: Daniel's optimism high with ASU