LAFAYETTE — It isn’t the Sun Belt Conference opener, but for the Louisiana-Lafayette men’s basketball team, it certainly will feel that way.
After all, it has been a month since the Ragin’ Cajuns (4-6, 0-1) opened league play with an 81-70 loss Dec. 3 at Louisiana-Monroe. That opened an up-and-down December for the consensus preseason pick to win the Sun Belt, a month that included home wins over McNeese State and UNO — teams with a combined 6-15 record — and road losses to three highly regarded teams.
“Our guys are disappointed in our record,” coach Bob Marlin said, “but they realize we’ve played some very good teams on the road and that conference is the most important part of our schedule.”
That part begins Saturday when UL-Lafayette hosts struggling Appalachian State to begin a run of 19 straight Sun Belt games. Saturday’s 7 p.m. tipoff is the only home outing in the Cajuns’ first six Sun Belt games, with UL-Lafayette not playing again at home until Jan. 21 against South Alabama.
“The whole team’s ready to play conference,” said junior guard Hayward Register, who shook off some cold shooting with 22 points in 18 minutes of Wednesday’s 67-52 exhibition win over Spring Hill. “After we lost to Monroe, we still have that sour taste in our mouth, and we’re ready to move forward.”
Appalachian State could bring a confidence boost. The Mountaineers (2-10) have lost seven in a row, including a 72-56 setback at ULM on Thursday to open Sun Belt play, and five of those six losses have come by double-digit margins.
But just like the Cajuns’ rugged slate of losses at nationally ranked Miami and UCLA along with Alabama and Louisiana Tech, the Mountaineers have faced North Carolina, Texas, Charlotte and Tulane away from home.
Marlin hopes his team benefited from Wednesday’s rare midseason exhibition, one in which UL-Lafayette jumped to a 15-2 lead, made eight of its first nine shots and led 38-21 at halftime before using most of the second half to experiment with lineups. Marlin said the game was added so his squad would not have a nearly two-week break from live action entering league play. Every other Sun Belt team was in league action Wednesday or Thursday.
“You don’t want that bye in the first round,” Marlin said. “A couple of years now we’ve had that happen, so hopefully Wednesday let us get some confidence going.”
Register, for one, has his confidence on the upswing. The former Comeaux High player had hit only 8-of-39 3-point attempts in UL-Lafayette’s first seven games before going 7-of-16 in the past three. On Wednesday, he had 11 points in the first 15 minutes and finished 6-of-10 outside the arc.
“I always have confidence, but mainly I just needed to see it going through the net,” Register said after his 22-point outing against Spring Hill. “That’s what I needed going into conference. I need to set my feet and take smart shots.”
His performance Wednesday may have given Appalachian State staffers a flashback on scouting video. Register banged in 6-of-8 3-pointers against the Mountaineers in last year’s 81-66 Cajuns home win after missing the early-season road game with back spasms.
“That’s the thing that I hope carries over,” said Marlin, whose team had an 80-64 home win over Appalachian State in a four-game streak to begin league play last year. “Hayward hit some big shots in that game and gave us a big boost.”
The Mountaineers are led by senior shooting guard Frank Eaves (19.4 points), who was shooting 47 percent from 3-point range (41-of-86) before ULM blanked him outside the arc on Thursday. The preseason all-league pick was only 7-of-28 from the floor in last year’s two losses to the Cajuns.
Cajuns senior big man Shawn Long (18.2, 11.9) enters the game ranked third in the Sun Belt in scoring and first in rebounding.
AS FOR THE WOMEN: The Ragin’ Cajuns women (8-2, 1-0) will look to take an early lead in the Sun Belt race and start 2-0 in league play for the first time in more than a decade in Saturday’s 5 p.m. doubleheader opener. UL-Lafayette rolled to a 71-52 win Dec. 3 at UL-Monroe.
The Cajuns boast the Sun Belt’s best overall record and are one of six teams that are 1-0 in conference play entering Saturday’s game. The Mountaineers (4-6) also are one of those clubs, having edged ULM 57-54 on Thursday.
The Cajuns are 4-0 at home after a 72-61 win over Alcorn State on Tuesday. They split two games with Appalachian State last year, including a late-season 70-66 home victory.