As much as the University of Louisiana at Lafayette loves to play high-octane, petal-to-the-metal games, Ragin’ Cajun basketball coach Bob Marlin has no delusions about Thursday night.
He knows his team will have to be at peak efficiency, play with patience and play with discipline when they take on Little Rock’s high-flying Trojans in the start of a rugged four-game Sun Belt Conference road swing.
The name may be different, reduced from its former Arkansas-Little Rock moniker, and the man in charge has also changed as first-year coach Chris Beard takes over for long-time Trojan coaching fixture Steve Shields. But what Little Rock does – patient, grinding offensive sets and lock-down defensive efforts – has not changed.
“We talked in staff meeting about how were they different from last year,” Marlin said Monday at his weekly press gathering, “and our consensus was they’re not much different. They’ve just been winning and having some success.”
Success is an understatement for Little Rock’s first two months under Beard. The Trojans were one of the nation’s few remaining unbeatens before losing 65-53 at Texas Tech on Dec. 22. When they host the 5-6 Cajuns in Thursday’s 7:15 p.m. contest at the Jack Stephens Center, Little Rock will bring a 12-1 record into play and will be coming off a road sweep at South Alabama and Troy in the Sun Belt’s first full weekend.
Included in those 12 wins are road victories at San Diego State, Tulsa and DePaul along with the recent league weekend sweep.
“They’ve played a good schedule and their RPI (No. 48) is fourth among mid-majors,” Marlin said. “They lead the country in road wins (seven). They’re like us, they’ve played a lot on the road this year.”
The Trojans’ road success isn’t the only eye-catching number in the national statistics. Their 55.6 average points allowed is the nation’s best mark by almost two points per game (Louisville is next at 57.4), they rank sixth nationally in field-goal defense in allowing foes to hit only 36.5 percent from the floor, and are eighth in the country in turnover margin at a plus 5.7 turnovers per game. Only once as a Little Rock opponent scored over 65 points this year.
“That’s the backbone of our team, it’s no secret,” said Beard, whose coaching tree includes stints under defensive stalwarts Bobby Knight, Pat Knight and current Texas State coach Danny Kaspar. “We like to play defense, we pride ourselves on our defense.”
That defense came to the fore most recently on Saturday in Little Rock’s 67-61 win at Troy. The host Trojans were up by five at halftime before making only 6-of-23 shots (26.1 percent) in the second half. That was the most recent of several second-half comebacks this season.
“At halftime, we try to meet as a staff and get some ideas, and we just couldn’t come up with many adjustments,” Beard said. “The adjustment was just to get back and play Little Rock defense.”
The Trojans’ defensive numbers are helped by a patient offense, one that has aired the second-fewest shots per game in the Sun Belt (55.3). Little Rock averages only 10.5 turnovers per game, a league best, and they also enter the week as the nation’s second-best squad from the free throw line (78.4, trailing only Pittsburgh’s 78.6 mark).
“We’ll try to speed them up to some degree,” said Marlin, whose squad remains the Sun Belt leader and in the national top 20 in scoring (84.3). “But teams that are disciplined and good at the guard slots are hard to speed up. We’ll want to play fast and they’ll want to let the air out of the tires. We’ll have to make every possession count.”
The Cajuns were able to do that at the start of Saturday’s Sun Belt home opener, a 79-58 win over Appalachian State. UL-Lafayette led by 25 points late in the first half and shot over 55 percent from the floor in taking a 40-21 halftime lead. The Cajuns were well under 40 percent most of the second half, mostly on their own misses and not because of what the struggling Mountaineers (2-11) were doing.
Senior postman Shawn Long finished with 18 points and 15 rebounds for his nation-leading 59th career double-double. He also had three assists in the game’s first 10 minutes when he kicked passes out in double-team situations, and Marlin said his ability to do that will be important in Thursday’s game against their defense-minded opponent.
“We did a good job defensively in the first half and that set the tone for the game,” Marlin said. “We had a lot of effort and attention to detail. We came out and got off to a quick start. I thought we lost a little of that focus in the second half, and our guards are going to have to shoot better.”
“Shawn’s going to be doubled Thursday like he did the other night, they’re going to sink guards in on him, and when the ball comes out the guards have to make shots and skip it around to the open guys.”