Bob Marlin did find one good thing about Thursday night, not long after his UL-Lafayette basketball team had a historic win streak snapped.
The Ragin’ Cajuns are still atop the Sun Belt Conference standings, even though their margin was reduced to only a fraction of what it was earlier this week.
That fraction, to be precise, is one-half. That’s the difference in games between the Cajuns (20-4, 10-1 Sun Belt) and Georgia State (19-6, 10-2) after the host Panthers gave their visitors a taste of the medicine they’d been delivering to the rest of the league since the New Year.
“We’re still in first place,” Marlin said shortly after the Cajuns fell 106-92 to Georgia State, snapping a 10-game winning streak as well as a school-record 16-game streak against Sun Belt foes dating to last year. “We still can control what happens. One game is not going to make a conference season.”
What Thursday’s game did was build even more separation between the Sun Belt’s top two teams and the rest of the conference. Other than the Cajuns and the Panthers, who have a 10-game win streak themselves, every other team has at least five Sun Belt losses.
That includes Georgia Southern (16-9, 7-5), which was stunned at home 65-64 in overtime Thursday by a UL-Monroe club that lost to the Cajuns twice by a combined 55 points. UL-Lafayette wraps up the Peach State swing against the Eagles in Saturday’s 4 p.m. game at Georgia Southern’s Hanner Fieldhouse.
The only other team in the Sun Belt with a winning record, Texas State (7-5), travels to meet state rival and preseason league favorite Texas-Arlington on Saturday.
That means the Cajuns have a four-game lead over the rest of the league with seven games to play, which is good news Marlin could have also mentioned even with Thursday’s loss. The Cajuns have all but locked up finishing in one of the league’s top two spots, and a win on Saturday would create even more of a chasm between the top two and the rest of the league.
That’s the good news. The bad news is that UL-Lafayette doesn’t get a second shot at the Eagles. The vagaries of the Sun Belt schedule, with 12 teams playing a 20-game conference slate, mean that each league team has two opponents it faces only once in the regular season.
This year for the Cajuns, it’s the two Georgia teams. Georgia State will hold a tie-breaker advantage over the Cajuns when it comes time for conference tournament seeding, and UL-Lafayette doesn’t want to be in the same position with Georgia Southern.
Marlin just wants his squad to play better than it did Thursday. The Panthers, who have beaten the Cajuns four times in five meetings in Atlanta, did to UL-Lafayette what the Cajuns had been doing to their league opponents — play defense, be efficient on offense and win on the boards.
The last statistic, a 43-33 GSU rebounding advantage, was the most stunning. Georgia State was last in the Sun Belt in rebounding entering Thursday’s game, while the Cajuns were averaging 7.4 more boards per game than their opponents to pace the Sun Belt.
The Panthers also shot 54.4 percent from the field and nearly 50 percent from 3-point range, including a shooting mark of better than 60 percent in the first half when they led by as many as 11. UL-Lafayette cut the margin to six at halftime and was still within single digits midway through the final half before a couple of late GSU runs.
“Their guards gave us a lot of trouble,” Marlin said. “We had a hard time stopping them from getting to the basket.”
The Cajuns may face something similar on Saturday. Entering the season, Georgia Southern’s guard tandem of Tookie Brown and Ike Smith were the fourth-highest scoring duo among returning players.
Brown has held up his end, ranking fourth in the Sun Belt in scoring (19.0), though he was held to seven points Thursday. Smith has struggled for much of this season, shooting almost 130 points below his sophomore year percentage and only 25 percent from 3-point range while averaging 11.4 points. Smith did have a team-high 15 points and seven rebounds in Thursday’s loss.
“Their guards are good, just like Georgia State’s, but they play completely different,” Marlin said. “We’re going to have to adjust in a hurry. We just didn’t do a lot of things very well Thursday, and if we don’t play better than that we won’t be in first place for long.”