Norchad Omier -- Arkansas State men's basketball's glass-pounding, double-double producing freshman forward -- needed little time to prove himself to an upperclassman like Marquis Eaton.
It was July, and covid-19 regulations had largely kept Coach Mike Balado's Red Wolves from practicing or playing together. Finally able to organize a live, five-on-five scrimmage, Balado teamed Omier up with Eaton, a senior, redshirt senior Christian Willis and sophomores Caleb Fields and Antwon Jackson,.
In 10 minutes of action, Omier, 6-7 and 230 pounds, had 14 rebounds and had flashed his scoring touch, and when Balado began drawing up the final possession of a tie game for Eaton, the senior guard insisted the last shot go to the freshman from Nicaragua.
"When a senior tells you to give the ball to the freshman, that's when I realized how much respect Norchad had already gained from his teammates, Balado said. "That's when I knew this kid had a chance to be special. Even the older guys could recognize his talent."
Seven games into his first regular season in Jonesboro, Omier's dominance has persisted. The freshman closed out nonconference play with four consecutive double-doubles, and leads ASU with 13.8 points and 11.5 rebounds per game. In a Dec. 9 loss to the University of Arkansas-Pine Bluff, Omier scored 21 points and grabbed 19 rebounds. Eleven days later he pulled down another 16 rebounds against Champion Christian.
In the talented 19-year old, Balado, a former Louisville assistant, has found a bright spot in ASU's 3-4 start, and a forward he likens to former Cardinal and current Los Angeles Laker Montrezl Harrell.
"When I saw [Omier] in practice, and when I saw him playing high school, he reminded me so much of Montrezl because of his tenacity for getting the basketball," Balado said. "He always has a nose for the ball."
Little more than three years ago, Omier had never played organized basketball, but his skill became evident the moment he stepped on the court in his home city of Bluefields, on the south coast of Nicaragua. That talent took him to Florida's Miami Prep, where he averaged 26.7 points and 20.3 rebounds in 2019-20 and landed on Balado's radar.
And when Omier debuted for the Red Wolves this fall, he became the first Nicaraguan to appear in a Division I basketball game.
"He's got a whole country on his shoulders," Balado said. "He's got little kids that are messaging him on Facebook and Instagram and on Snapchat, talking about how much they want to be like him. That just drives him more and more."
Just seven games into his college career, Omier is still molding the mental side of his game to match the physical; Balado's fluent Spanish, developed in his native Miami, has helped with X's and O's. Sun Belt Conference competition, and more challenging matchups in the paint, lie ahead for ASU, but Balado intends to continue to push his freshman forward.
"We're definitely going to lean on him as someone we need in conference play to be successful," he said. "He's going to run into a junior or a senior or some guy with more experience and that'll be good for him. I know one thing: no matter how good the person is who is lined up against him, he won't back down."
The Red Wolves overcame a 17-point season-opening loss to Arkansas Pine-Bluff and a pair of cancellations to finish nonconference play at 4-1. Even so, Coach Matt Daniel still hasn't figured out a consistent starting five.
"You usually figure your rotations out about 10 games into the season," Daniel said. "Not only have we not gotten the 10 games in, but we haven't gotten all the practice time, either. That process will just be delayed."
Through five games, the Red Wolves have used seven different starters and will potentially feature more as they enter Sun Belt play.
What is certain is that Daniel has plenty of offensive firepower to work with. The Red Wolves enter 2021 averaging 85 points per game, second only to Troy among Sun Belt foes. Memphis transfer Jada Stinson (13.6 points) and Peyton Martin (10.4) pace an ASU squad that has five scorers averaging 8.4 points or more per game, joined by Jireh Washington (9.6), Trinitee Jackson (8.8) and Morgan Wallace (8.4).
Two other candidates to challenge for starting roles are junior college transfer Karolina Szydlowska, who is averaging 5.6 points and 4.6 rebounds in 17.2 minutes per game, and sophomore Mya Love, who scored 13 points in the Red Wolves' Dec. 17 victory over Champion Christian.
With options abound and a challenging conference schedule ahead, Daniel may not have a set lineup for some time.
"I don't imagine we'll figure out rotations till about five games left in the season," Daniel said.
Ole Miss days
In his first full season in charge of the University of Central Arkansas men's team, Coach Anthony Boone brought his program to the school and city that molded his career in basketball. When UCA (1-6) traveled to Ole Miss earlier this month, it marked Boone's return to his alma mater as a head coach.
"Ole Miss was a big part of my life – my time there," Boone said. "Even though it wasn't that long of a period of my life, it was a really huge part of my life. It shaped a lot of who I am."
Knee injuries cut significantly into Boone's college career at Ole Miss from 1994-98, but UCA's coach was named an SEC All-Freshman selection in 1995 and made such an impact on the program and fan base that his No. 41 was retired next to Archie Manning's No. 18 when his playing career was over.
Upon arriving in Oxford for the Dec. 14 game, Boone felt out of place passing by fans sporting Ole Miss gear and cars with school logos on their bumpers and license plates while wearing a different logo on his chest. Covid-19 also added to the peculiarity, as Boone's return featured fewer hugs and reunions that he might have wanted, though he did meet up with Jeff Moore, a trainer from his time with the Rebels.
"Initially, and leading up to it, it was very strange," he said. "It was really weird going back there representing another school"
That momentary discomfort disappeared fast when the ball tipped inside The Pavilion at Ole Miss where his jersey hangs in the rafters. The Rebels (6-1) pulled away from UCA, but the Bears hung close with the hosts in a 68-54 loss that left Boone confident in his team.
"Ole Miss has a really good team and I think they'll have a really good season," he said. "There is a little bit of satisfaction, or something like it, of knowing that we competed pretty well with them."
Strong start for Outlaw
The University of Central Arkansas women, playing a robust nonconference schedule, have stumbled to a 2-6 start, but among the promising fixtures on Sandra Rushing's roster has been redshirt freshman Jalisa Outlaw.
The guard from Starkville, Miss., sat out last season due to injury but has quickly jumped into a primary scoring role for the Sugar Bears, averaging 14.5 points in seven games. Outlaw scored 20 points in the Sugar Bears' first win of the season over the University of Arkansas-Pine Bluff on Dec. 1, and scored another 19 against fellow in-state rival UALR two weeks later.
And while UCA's preparation for the Southland Conference has featured challenging opponents including Baylor, the University of Arkansas, TCU and Mississippi State, Outlaw has held her own. In November, she scored 15 points at TCU and 19 points at Mississippi State on Dec. 20.
Outlaw had her finest effort for UCA's biggest in-state game of the season on Dec. 13, when she scored 22 points against the Razorbacks.
Rushing has a number of proven talents she can rely on in conference play, but in Outlaw, she has a scorer who has proven herself against the toughest teams during the Sugar Bears' nonconference slate.
Close to full strength
The high from a 17-point, season-opening win on the road at Arkansas State was matched swiftly with a low days later when 10 members of University of Arkansas-Pine Bluff women were forced to quarantine due to covid-19. Shorthanded, the Golden Lions (1-4) dropped their next four games.
With redshirt sophomore Shicoriya Orr set to return for a trip to face Oklahoma on Tuesday, UAPB is back at full strength and prepared for Southwestern Athletic Conference play behind three newcomers -- Khadijah Brown, Joyce Kennerson and Kaila Walker -- who have seized early opportunities.
"To be able to have options like them, I think any coach in the country would feel at ease about that, this season especially," Coach Dawn Brown said. "That's three big contributors for us and we haven't even had Shicoriya."
Brown, a redshirt senior forward, spent last year sidelined after transferring from Jacksonville where her new head coach previously served as an assistant. This season, the 6-3 post player arrived as an immediate force, averaging a team-high 14.3 points and 10.3 rebounds per game.
On the perimeter, Kennerson and Walker have each assumed significant roles on offense, combining for 26.5 points per game. Kennerson, playing her final collegiate season, transferred to the Golden Lions following three seasons at Texas Southern, where the 5-4 guard cemented herself as the program's second-leading scorer all-time.
Walker, a sophomore after starring at Arkansas Baptist College as a freshman last season, has settled in quickly as the Golden Lions' second-leading scorer.
The trio has given Brown, the second-year head coach, a foundation of offensive talent, and with Orr ready to return in time for the nonconference finale against the Sooners, UAPB appears fully equipped headed into SWAC competition.
"I'm ready to see all of the pieces together," Brown said. "I haven't really had an opportunity even to see that yet. I'm excited to see all the pieces together."
Doss coming up big
An injury kept UAPB's Shaun Doss from all but three games a season ago, but in 2020-21, the redshirt junior has picked up where he left off in his last full season.
Two seasons ago, Doss finished as UAPB's second-leading scorer with 12.8 points per game. Through nine games this year, Doss has proven more than just a reliable scorer, and has done it against a nonconference slate loaded with top programs including Marquette, No. 9 Wisconsin and No. 2 Baylor.
Along with the 16.8 points he's averaging, the guard from Marion has grabbed 5.8 rebounds. In each of the past two games, Doss has reached double-digit rebounds, and in UAPB's Dec. 21 loss at Baylor, it was his 24-point, 10-rebound effort that paced the Golden Lions (1-8) in the 99-42 defeat.
The effort left Doss just three points shy of his season-high of 27 he scored at Marquette on Nov. 25.