JONESBORO — Arkansas State is figuring out defense wins championships.
ASU opened Sun Belt Conference play with back-to-back losses at Florida International and Florida Atlantic more than a month ago. But after starting at the bottom of West Division, the Red Wolves have put together a four-game win streak and climbed to the top of their division.
Defense has been the key in Arkansas State’s resurgence.
"We’re just playing harder and we’re a little more detailed with our defense," Arkansas State coach John Brady said following Wednesday’s workout. "We’re not making as many mistakes, and we’re putting more pressure on the ball and we’re guarding dribble penetration a little better. I think our guys are taking a little more pride in it in seeing how effective it can be when they put the effort into it."
Brady and the Red Wolves aim to continue that defensive trend when FIU visits tonight. Tipoff is 7:05 p.m. at the Convocation Center, and the game will be broadcast on KFIN (FM-107.9).
Defense, however, was hardly Arkansas State’s priority the first time the two teams met.
Florida International scorched ASU with a hot shooting hand, hitting 60.4 percent from the field in an 80-61 blowout. The Golden Panthers shot 66.7 percent in the second half, making 18-of-27 shots to turn a seven-point lead at halftime into a runaway.
It was the worst loss Arkansas State has suffered all season.
"Our defense was not nearly what it needs to be or what it should have been," Brady said. "That’s my responsibility, but I think we’ve corrected that."
The Red Wolves (10-5 overall, 4-2 Sun Belt Conference) have won four straight by pressuring the basketball and forcing more difficult shots recently.
ASU has held its opponents to a combined 38 percent shooting during the streak, including 27 percent in a win at South Alabama and 32 percent in an overtime win over Middle Tennessee State.
For the season, ASU has allowed teams to shoot 42 percent, but that number is heading downward as the Red Wolves have improved their play without the basketball.
"We seem to be taking more pride in guarding now and we’ve demonstrated that against three of the better teams on the other side of the conference," Brady said. "We just need to keep that going, and hopefully our guys understand how fragile it can be if you don’t do what is necessary every day in practice and then carry it over into the game."
Florida International (7-7, 2-3) has won three straight after losing back-to-back games against MTSU and Western Kentucky.
The Golden Panthers are led by guard Tymell Murphy, a 6-foot-2 junior college transfer. Murphy is fifth in the Sun Belt in scoring with 15.4 points and also leads FIU with 7.9 boards a game.
Arkansas State had all kinds of difficulty containing Murphy the first time. He scored 22 points, making 9-of-10 shots from the field, and grabbed six boards in the win.
ASU will pay special attention to Murphy this evening.
"He’s got a good drive, he drives the ball," Brady said. "He makes a ‘3’ occasionally, but he’s a hard, tough driver. He chases the ball down, had 20 rebounds in a game. We’re going to have to do a really good job with him. He’s got a high motor and he’s very active."
Brady said Edward Townsel, Trey Finn and Marcus Hooten will all defend Murphy.
Arkansas State is coming off two of its most impressive wins of the season, beating Sun Belt front-runner Middle Tennessee 66-60 in overtime followed by a 75-61 win over Western Kentucky.
Townsel leads the Red Wolves with 16.3 points a game and is shooting 39.8 percent from 3-point range. Senior forward Brandon Peterson is scoring 11.6 points and grabbing a team-high 9.7 boards a game.
Hooten helped spark ASU past Middle Tennessee with 14 points off the bench while Townsel poured in 25 points, including five 3-pointers, in the win over Western Kentucky.
Brady said his team is playing very well, but he’s cautious to be optimistic. He does seem to believe the Red Wolves will be motivated to prove they’re a better team than they showed FIU the first time.
"I think our team is going to accept the challenge," Brady said. "That’s the only team that has really pushed us around. They beat us in every phase of the game. I think our team wants to show them that we do deserve respect by the way we’ve played of late, and hopefully we can continue that."