Sitting at 3-6 in the first week of January, the Arkansas State University men's basketball team got a two-week break that transformed its 2020-21 season.
Covid-19 protocols postponed the Red Wolves' trip to Texas State set for Jan. 8-9, handing Coach Mike Balado a 13-day gap between games. ASU used the hiatus to primarily work on its tempo offense that has since propelled the Red Wolves into the thick of the Sun Belt West Division race entering the final weekend of the regular season.
Sophomore guard Caleb Fields called that time "the hardest two weeks of the season." He said Balado was "very stern," telling his players that those who couldn't adapt to the pace wouldn't play.
At the end of the two weeks, the Red Wolves swept Louisiana-Monroe in Jonesboro, winning the second game by 21 points.
"It was like somebody handed us a Staples reset button," Balado said. "We hit it about five times. It was good for us and I think that was the turning point."
ASU (10-10 7-6 Sun Belt) has won seven of 11 games since the pause and heads to Texas-Arlington this weekend a game and a half behind Louisiana-Lafayette for second place in the West. If the Red Wolves can leap the Ragin' Cajuns, they'll earn a first-round bye in the Sun Belt Conference Tournament beginning March 5 in Pensacola, Fla.
"I think we can beat anybody in the conference the way we're playing," Fields said.
While the rest of the Sun Belt programs played their second weekend series of the conference season, ASU worked on the practice court where Balado forced the Red Wolves' offense to operate faster.
Prior to Jan. 15, ASU hadn't eclipsed the 80-point mark against a Division I opponent all season. In 10 games since, the Red Wolves have done so four times.
"I think we had to find ourselves and find the best way for us to play," senior guard Marquis Eaton said. "Once we sped it up, everything was different. Most teams can't play as fast as us."
In a Jan. 2 loss to Louisiana-Monroe, ASU had only 69 possessions, far short of the 80-90 Balado looks for each game. He called for more passing and movement from his team to force a pace that would give ASU as many shots as it could get.
"We had a rule," Balado said. "You had to get the ball across half court in three seconds or less, otherwise it's a turnover."
Since returning from the break, guards such as Fields and Eaton -- the latter of which enters the weekend second in the conference with 4.9 assists per game -- have had license to push the ball up court. Playmakers such as redshirt senior Christian Willis and freshman Norchad Omier have seen more of the ball in quality spots.
The Red Wolves had a four-game winning streak snapped by West division-leading Texas State on Monday 57-52. ASU closes the regular season with a momentum developed over the past six weeks, bolstered by the offense it developed in early January.
"If everyone touches the ball as much as possible, the ball will find the right guy at the right time," Balado said. "We'll get the right shot that we want."
The University of Arkansas at Little Rock has dropped six consecutive games heading into a weekend home series against Louisiana-Lafayette.
The Trojans (10-13, 6-10) have been swept in three consecutive series, most recently by Louisiana-Monroe on Sunday and Monday. Over the six-game stretch, UALR's has scored less than 70 points in all six games.
No matter what happens this weekend, UALR is guaranteed a spot in Sun Belt Tournament.
"We can't really think about these last six games," senior forward Ruot Monyyong said. "We've got to have amnesia with it. If we don't, it's going to carry over to the next game and we don't want that.
"I think we could win some more games if we beat Louisiana-Lafayette. It would give us momentum going into the tournament."
UCA on outside
In the midst of a 10-game losing streak, the University of Central Arkansas (3-17, 2-10 Southland) is outside the Southland Conference postseason picture with four games to play.
UCA travels to second-place Abilene Christian this weekend sitting in 12th place in the conference. Only the top eight teams reach the conference tournament. The Bears trail eighth-place Southeastern Louisiana by three games.
UAPB in hole
The University of Arkansas-Pine Bluff (3-18, 2-10 SWAC) today's meeting at Texas Southern 1 1/2 games behind Alabama State for the final spot in the postseason tournament.
The Golden Lions have lost each of their last 10 games and will face a pair of programs with winning conference records in Grambling State and Jackson State after today. UAPB closes the season with Mississippi Valley State, which stands last in the SWAC at 1-10.