LAFAYETTE — Before the 2015-16 Louisiana-Lafayette men’s basketball team ever stepped foot in Georgia, it was an underachieving squad to most outside observers, one sure it was destined for big things but in need of proof to back that confidence up.
Those pre-Georgia Ragin’ Cajuns were three games under .500. That team was populated by shooters who were struggling to make shots. But the opponents never seemed to have a problem knocking down shots, contested or not.
The Cajuns needed a spark. They went to Georgia and found it in Statesboro, then loudly announced it with a dominant victory in Atlanta.
“The Georgia trip was the turning point for us,” senior guard Kasey Shepherd said.
It has been more than three weeks since the Cajuns went to Georgia Southern, where they didn’t play well a year before, and walked out with their first road win of the season. They haven’t lost since.
The past eight games have resulted in eight wins, and all but one of those wins has come by nine or more points. The average margin of victory during the winning streak is 16.8 points.
The Cajuns always have been a confident group, with several players saying at various points throughout a rough beginning to the season that they thought their team was still the class of the Sun Belt Conference, even if their record didn’t reflect it.
As those outside the program looked at its substandard record and wondered where things went wrong, the team “tightened its circle” and focused on doing the things it knew it was capable of.
“People looking from the outside in, it’s easy to make that assumption (that something was wrong),” senior forward Shawn Long said. “But being part of this program, you know to stay the course and keep confidence. In college basketball, things turn around quick — obviously.”
They were 1-3 in SBC play at the time they played Georgia Southern. Coach Bob Marlin said in the days leading up to that game that he thought his team was on the cusp of breaking through, but it was hard to see that based on what had transpired on the court.
The Cajuns had just dropped the first two games of a four-game road swing. They made just two of their final 20 shots in a 20-point loss at Little Rock. They went similarly cold in the final minutes against Arkansas State, allowing the Red Wolves to rally from a double-digit deficit and stun the Cajuns in the final seconds.
Rather than retreating after being blown out in one game and losing another that it should have won, Marlin said his team went the opposite direction.
“We felt really good coming back (from Arkansas),” he said. “We’ve practiced well and grown since that time.”
They certainly have. The Cajuns were 74-65 winners against Georgia Southern, giving them a little momentum going into a rivalry game with Georgia State.
“Playing against Georgia Southern, remembering how they beat us last year up there, I think everybody was a lot more focused and we all understood what it took,” Shepherd said. “We got that win; that was a big confidence booster.”
That was the spark they had been looking for. The game against Georgia State provided fuel for a fire that has been burning ever since.
The Cajuns walloped Georgia State, which had been unbeaten at home. The shooters suddenly started making shots, and a defense that had been torched over and over again was suddenly solid. The confidence was validated in the form of a 87-54 win.
That momentum has only built since. The Cajuns followed the Georgia trip with a five-game homestand, which they finished undefeated. They survived a trip to Appalachian State on short rest to post another win by a double-digit margin Thursday.
Now the question is this: How long can the Cajuns continue to draw on the strength they found in Georgia?
Marlin is constantly preaching to anyone who will listen that his team needs to play its best basketball at this time of the year. And judging by recent history, his team has been listening. Since 2014, the Cajuns are 23-7 in February and March, including 2-0 so far this season.
Only time will tell whether history will repeat this season. The gap between the Cajuns’ highs and lows is massive enough to never count on them to play a certain way on a certain night.
But there is one unassailable opinion about this team.
“We keep playing like this?” Shepherd asked. “Man, it’s going to be one heck of a season.”