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Sun Belt teams get familiar with foes

by Eli Lederman | January 21, 2021 at 2:24 a.m.

In 2019-20, the Arkansas State University men's basketball team faced Louisiana-Monroe twice, in games separated by nearly two months.

This year starting Jan. 1, the programs met four times in the span of 16 days, finishing out their season series last weekend in Jonesboro.

In 22 years of college basketball, Red Wolves Coach Mike Balado has experienced plenty of scheduling oddities and kinks. Nothing compares to this season.

"I've certainly never seen a team four times in three weeks, and back-to-back like we have," Balado said. "It's different. But that's the motto of this year, isn't it?"

ASU's unconventional schedule is the norm across the Sun Belt this season. This weekend, the University of Arkansas at Little Rock men's basketball team will travel to play its third and fourth games against Texas-Arlington.

This season, the Sun Belt Conference's basketball teams are split into a pair of six-team divisions, and its men's and women's programs will face only five conference opponents over an 18-game Sun Belt schedule. By the time the regular ends Feb. 27, each program will have played four games against all but one of those divisional foes in a schedule aimed at curbing covid-19 risks.

"You play a team back-to-back twice, it doesn't make any sense," UALR Coach Darrell Walker said. "I didn't like it [when it was announced]. But this is what we went with and now we've got to go with it."

Walker and the Trojans (7-6, 3-3 Sun Belt) are preparing to close out their first four-game series against Texas-Arlington on the road. UALR swept the Mavericks to open conference play Jan. 1 and 2.

Despite Walker's opposition to the conference schedule, which he voiced before the season began as well, his four decades as a player and coach in the NBA prepped him for it.

"I'm used to back-to-backs being in the league so long," he said. "It doesn't bother me."

Walker is relying on game film and the notes he jotted down from UALR's previous meeting with the Mavericks. He's maintaining a "one game at a time" mentality with his team, and he doesn't plan to throw anything different at the Mavericks.

"Nothing changes for us," Walker said. "We're going to pound the ball inside during the two games here at home. Nothing is going to change. We play inside-out."

Balado and the Red Wolves (5-6, 2-2) used a different approach to flip the script in their second series with Louisiana-Monroe last Friday and Saturday.

Two losses to the Warhawks to open conference play were followed by a 14-day break for ASU after covid-19 concerns at Texas State postponed the Red Wolves' trip to play the Bobcats. The postponement meant ASU would open Sun Belt play with four consecutive games against the same team.

In preparation for the Louisiana-Monroe rematch, the Red Wolves studied film from their previous two games, watching one half each day in the lead up. Rather than focusing on the Warhawks and adjusting to them, ASU looked inward.

"It was more about us," guard Marquis Eaton said. "Our coaches made it more about us in the way we prepared. It was more about finding ourselves than what they did."

In reviewing the film, ASU realized its offense on the opening weekend had been slow and stagnant, part of why the Red Wolves were outscored 146-127 in the two losses. ASU upped its offensive tempo in practice, then ran Louisiana-Monroe up and down the floor on its home court at First National Bank Arena. The Red Wolves scored a combined 167 points in a pair of wins.

For ASU, it was a lesson in how to attack the unconventional conference schedule.

"To play the same team twice, the second time around you've got a better idea of what you're going up against," Balado said.

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