It seems like it was only a year ago when Arkansas State announced the hire of a young assistant from a Power Five program, and one that was highly seeded in the NCAA tournament. Ha ha! It was just a year ago, when the Red Wolves concluded what was nearly a season-long coaching search by announcing the hire of Baylor’s Grant McCasland.
With that hire, the Red Wolves gained a high-energy leader with ability and ambition. To start his tenure, McCasland parted ways with the Sun Belt 2nd team forward Anthony Livingston, leaving the team with only two seniors (Devin Carter and Donte Thomas). But McCasland went to work immediately, signing players that made immediate impacts in Deven Simms, Tomas Bruce and Rashad Lindsey. The result was an unexpected 20-win season with big OOC victories over Georgetown, Lehigh and Chattanooga.
The future of Red Wolves basketball was trending up. And then the thing that usually happens to the Red Wolves happened again to the Red Wolves.
“Let’s go win some championships!”
McCasland, a Texas native, decided to resettle his family in Denton and make a lateral-ish move to North Texas. Once again, the Red Wolves found themselves conducting a nationwide search for leadership. The early clubhouse leader was in-house assistant Ross Hodge, and popular and capable staffer for McCasland. The next name out of the gate was Levelle Moton, a sensible choice out of North Carolina Central.
Arkansas State athletic director Terry Mohajir hardly waited a week to recruit another name that was hot among A-State hoops followers – Mike Balado, an assistant with Rick Pitino’s Louisville Cardinals.
It’s another bold and decisive move for Mohajir, who had a solid list of candidates ready thanks to the season-long search made necessary after former head coach John Brady’s long retirement tour in 2015-16.
The paths of Balado and Mohjair intersected at in 2007 FAU – Balado as an assistant and Mohajir as an up-and-coming associate athletic director. The brief interlude must have made an impression. With Balado, the Red Wolves receive a graduate from the Rick Pitino coaching tree, one that has seen Tubby Smith, Mick Cronin, Billy Donovan and others achieve great success. There’s no reason to believe that Bolado won’t find the same success.
Highly regarded by Rick Pitino, Balado brings the prestige of Louisville and a winning culture to Arkansas State – and hopefully an ability to bring championship talent to Jonesboro. The parallels to McCasland are hard to ignore (young assistant from a P5 program). But hopefully, Balado will take the care to craft the legacy that McCasland opted to leave behind.
Looking ahead to the Balado Era
Mike Balado enters his Red Wolves tenure with some immediate challenges, the first of which is to calm the recruiting turmoil created by McCasland’s sudden departure. The second is more long term: continue the momentum that has generated much-missed excitement for hoops in Jonesboro.
The first mission is too murky to comprehend. The second has more tangible discussion points. Balado begins the 2017-18 season minus the team’s leading scorer in Devin Simms and its leader in assists, Donte Thomas. However, those are the only two foreseeable departures. Presumably, Simms takes his production (13.4 ppg, 1.9 assists) off the bench and into the starting line-up. Super freshman Jahmiah Simmons (6.4 ppg, 5 rebounds) becomes another year wiser. Lindsey runs the point for the departed Thomas, and Bruce develops further as a rebounder (while, hopefully, working on improving his free throws).
Simply said, the Red Wolves need height, and hopefully the 6’10” Mark Tikhonenko sticks with his Red Wolves commitment. Or perhaps Balado wows the Red Wolves faithful with an impressive JUCO steal or big time transfer. The Red Wolves can’t expect to continue to win games with a team comprised almost exclusively of guards. Balado needs to find some inside muscle to make the next leap.
Will the Red Wolves contend? When addressing McCasland’s dismissal, Mohajir made it clear that NCAA appearances was the goal, and A-State’s post-season drought is no longer acceptable. Balado is tasked with vaulting a high bar.