When the teams were in the old Gulf States Conference and later in the Southland, just the mention of “Tech-USL” conjured up images of intense, high-scoring, free-wheeling basketball.
When players like the Ragin’ Cajuns’ Bo Lamar and the Bulldogs’ Mike Green got together, fans jammed Lafayette’s Blackham Coliseum and Ruston’s Memorial Gym in what for years was the state’s best basketball rivalry.
That rivalry faded at the start of this century as the teams migrated to different leagues, and the squads went five years without playing at all.
That makes Wednesday night’s game a little more special, when Louisiana Tech visits the Cajundome for the first time in seven years to meet the University of Louisiana at Lafayette for the second time in as many seasons. Tipoff is set for 7 p.m.
“This is a long-standing rivalry,” said Cajuns coach Bob Marlin whose team is 3-4 but is unbeaten in two home games. “Tech may be our longest rivalry, so we were glad they agreed to play last year.”
Marlin is right on the numbers. The Cajuns and Bulldogs have met 125 times in basketball with Tech holding a 68-57 lead, but the meeting most in the minds of those players came last season when the two teams ended their exiles. In that Dec. 4 game, UL-Lafayette went to Ruston and stunned the Bulldogs 89-80, giving Tech its only home loss in the past three seasons.
“For us to go up there and get a win, on the road against a very good team, that was big for our team,” Marlin said.
The teams went on to combine for 52 wins last season, the Cajuns going 23-12 and winning the Sun Belt tournament to advance to the NCAA tournament. The Bulldogs finished at 29-8, getting upset by Tulsa in the finals of the Conference USA Tournament but winning a pair of NIT games.
That 89-80 score was also a harbinger of things to come. Both teams averaged exactly 81 points per game last year and ranked among the nation’s leaders in scoring — even though Marlin and Tech coach Michael White would both welcome a strong defensive effort Wednesday.
“I don’t mind outscoring opponents from time to time,” White said, “but I’m not sure you can win championships without being consistently really good on the defensive end and on the glass.”
White’s team is 7-1 and has continued the pressure defense that was a hallmark of last season. Bulldog foes are shooting below 40 percent, and Tech is forcing 15 turnovers per game. However, the Bulldogs are being outrebounded by eight a game despite their only loss coming to Temple (82-75) in Philadelphia. Tech held Jackson State to 34.5 shooting and forced 22 turnovers in a 65-52 Saturday win in Ruston, but the visiting Tigers pounded Tech 48-32 on the boards despite the loss.
Cajun foes are also under 40 percent, but UL-Lafayette has struggled with turnovers and consistent rebounding. The Cajuns have won all three games in which they’ve out-boarded their opponents but lost all four when they’ve had a rebound deficit, while averaging nearly 19 turnovers per game.
Marlin’s team was outrebounded 47-38 in Saturday’s 80-70 road loss to McNeese State but had a season-low 14 turnovers. Offensively, though, the Cajuns were 3-of-20 outside the arc and only 9-of-19 at the free-throw line.
“We played pretty well defensively for the most part,” Marlin said of Saturday’s loss. “The big thing is we have to shoot the ball better.”
The Bulldogs rely on a trio of All-Conference USA guards Speedy Smith (7.6 assists per game), Raheem Appleby (16.0) and Alex Hamilton (13.9). Hamilton has led the team in scoring each of the past two games, including a 30-point outburst against Northwestern State, while Smith had 10 assists in the Jackson State win.
In contrast, the Cajuns have been solid on the front line. Junior Shawn Long, who missed two full games with a foot injury, came back with 18 points, 11 rebounds and five blocks against McNeese, while senior transfer Brian Williams had 15 on Saturday and has scored double figures in six of the Cajuns’ seven games.