Those dates are when Arkansas State and UALR play, and the way it looks now, the Sun Belt Conference West Division race is going to come down to those in-state rivals. As we approach the mid-way point of the 20-game schedule of conference play, the locals guys have taken control of the division race.
On Saturday night in Jonesboro, ASU drilled Louisiana-Monroe 63-39, allowing just 14 points in the second half, and UALR won at Western Kentucky 59-54. At this point, the Trojans (12-9, 6-4) hold a half-game lead over the Red Wolves (11-7, 5-4).
After the Red Wolves travel to Troy on Thursday, ASU will either be tied or a game back. Either way it shapes up for an big finish and the March 2 game at UALR might determine who wears the division title.
On the other side, Middle Tennessee (16-4, 8-1) is about the run away with things. The Arkansas teams have both played Middle, ASU won at home and UALR lost on the road Thursday night. They each play the Blue Raiders again.
The preseason Sun Belt Conference poll had North Texas the favorite on the West side. But the Mean Green, which has preseason player of the year Tony Mitchell on its roster, is now third in the division at 3-6, two games behind the Arkansas teams in the loss column. UALR already owns a home victory against UNT while ASU has yet to play this season.
To the Trojans’ advantage, they have the tough at MTSU and at WKU stretch out the way, splitting with the teams. ASU has played the pair, winning both at home.
“We need to go down to Troy and take care of business,” he said, “and then we have a three-game home stand where we have a chance to do some things.”
ASU has Florida Atlantic, South Alabama and North Texas in Jonesboro over the next two weeks. After that is gets tougher for the Red Wolves, who were picked second in the conference preseason, with a finish of five of their final seven games on the road.
For UALR, its advantage could be its final two games of the season are at home against Louisiana-Lafayette and ASU. That is the Trojans’ only extended homestand down the stretch, but there are two two-game road swings, including the long trip to south Florida the week before they close with ULL and ASU.
UALR was the preseason third-place pick, and coach Steve Shields has again pieced together another solid group that plays well as a team. But seems to always be the case for the Trojans — no superstars just good, solid well-coached, hard-playing teams.
As it looks now, Valentine’s night in Jonesboro and March 2 in LIttle Rock are the big dates, at least for the West title.
The bigger dates are March 8-11 at the Sun Belt tournament in Hot Springs. In this league, that is what it is all about because the winner gets the only SBC bid to the NCAA tournament.
UALR: Jan. 24 FAU; Jan. 26 at North Texas; Feb. 2, South Alabama; Feb. 7 at ULM; Feb. 14 at ASU; Feb. 16 Middle; Feb. 21 at FIU; Feb. 23 at FAU; Feb. 28 ULL; March 2 ASU
ASU: Jan. 24 at Troy; Jan. 26 FAU; Jan. 31 South Alabama; Feb. 2 North Texas; Feb. 7 at Middle; Feb. 9 at Western Kentucky; Feb. 14 UALR; Feb. 16 at ULM; Feb. 23 Troy; Feb. 28 at North Texas; March 2 at UALR