JONESBORO — Throw out the records and it’s still one of the most intense rivalries in the Sun Belt Conference.
Consider first place in the West Division is at stake with a handful of games remaining, and tonight’s matchup has all the ingredients of a classic showdown.
Arkansas State and Arkansas-Little Rock renew their in-state rivalry when the two teams collide with the West Division lead up for grabs this evening. Tipoff is 7:05 p.m. at the Convocation Center and the game will be broadcast on KFIN (FM-107.9).
“We know what it’s about, we know what’s on the line and we know what it means,” Arkansas State coach John Brady said. “They know that if we win, we’d still only be a half-game up, so it’s not like this is going to clinch it. But it is an opportunity for us to get ahead of them and let them have to try and catch us. That’s the significance.”
With five games left, Arkansas State (15-9 overall, 9-6 Sun Belt) trails UALR by a game in the loss column of the West standings.
The Red Wolves and Trojans were tied atop the division before ASU lost at Middle Tennessee State one week ago. While Arkansas-Little Rock was off, ASU bounced back with a 67-49 win at Western Kentucky on Saturday as senior Trey Finn scored a season-high 23 points.
Now Arkansas State can take sole possession of the division lead. But as Finn has found over his career, taking down the Trojans is never easy.
“This is a big rivalry,” Finn said. “We’re going to be ready as a team and I’m sure they’re going to be ready as a team. We’ll both lay it all out there.”
Arkansas-Little Rock (15-10, 9-5) has won the last three meetings, including a 63-62 win in Jonesboro and a 62-60 win in Little Rock last season.
While those losses serve as motivation for the Red Wolves, they’re also an indication of the tight, hard-fought battles the teams typically wage.
Of the last 10 meetings, only one has been decided by double figures. The other nine have been determined by eight points or less, including four by two points or less.
“They’ve beaten us the last three times, at the conference tournament my sophomore year and twice last year,” Finn said. “We don’t want that to happen again. We don’t want them coming in here and beating us.”
Both teams share similar philosophies and styles.
While they aren’t mirror images, ASU and UALR’s emphasis on defending and rebounding has led to some low-scoring and physical games. They are the type of matchups in which each possession takes on more significance.
“Since I’ve been here, it’s always been a tough, physical game,” ASU senior Brandon Peterson said. “They usually turn into a defensive game. We have to come out, play hard and bring the same defensive intensity that they bring.”
Tonight’s matchup will likely play out as a defensive struggle.
Arkansas State is second in the Sun Belt in scoring and fourth in field goal defense, allowing 62.7 points and 41.8 percent shooting. The Red Wolves primarily play man defense and pressure the ball to lead the Sun Belt in turnover margin.
Arkansas-Little Rock is fourth in the Sun Belt scoring and second in field goal defense, allowing 65.4 points and 41.7 percent shooting.
“They’re a team that stresses defending and rebounding as we do,” Brady said. “They make it difficult for teams to score just as we try to.”
One key difference may be the Trojans’ shooting. They rank third in the league in field goal (43.1) and 3-point percentage (35.6).
UALR is led by 6-foot-10 junior Will Neighbour with 11.4 points and 7.0 rebounds a game. Freshman guard John Gillon is next at 9.7 points a game and is shooting 39.7 percent from 3-point range, while sophomore guard Ben Dillard is shooting 44.2 percent from the outside.
“They’ve kind of spread it out and won some games by committee,” Brady added. “To their credit, they’ve won five or six games by five points or less. That’s a tribute to how well they’re coached and how well they’re playing.”
The Trojans will also start 6-10 sophomore Michael Javes, giving them a size advantage inside.
Arkansas State will counter with Peterson and 6-foot-7 forward Kendrick Washington at the forwards. Peterson and Washington were instrumental in the win at Western Kentucky, combining for 18 points and 18 rebounds.
“Whatever lineup we throw out there, we’re not going to be as big as they are,” Brady said. “We may be a little quicker and we may be a little faster, and we’ll have to take advantage in that regard.”
Ed Townsel leads ASU with 14 points a game while Peterson is averaging 10.3 points and 9.6 rebounds.
Arkansas State has won four of its last five and is 11-2 at home. UALR has won five of six, but is 3-7 on the road.
The Red Wolves want to control their own fate for the final two weeks of the season, and that requires winning tonight.
“We know what’s on the line,” Finn said. “We don’t want to have to wait on somebody to lose. We need to win out. If we do that, the West is ours.”