Ragin’ Cajuns sit in second place for the preseason Sun Belt conference polls _lowres

Advocate staff photo by ELIOT KAMENITZ-- Louisiana Lafayette Ragin Cajuns forward Shawn Long, left, wrestles with Georgia State Panthers forward Curtis Washington under the Ragin Cajun basket in the championship game of the Sun Belt Conference basketball tournament Sunday at Lakefront Arena.

Bob Marlin isn’t too concerned about the Sun Belt Conference’s preseason men’s basketball poll, even though the team his Louisiana-Lafayette squad beat in the league title game is the unanimous pick to win this year’s crown.

Georgia State, who won last year’s Sun Belt regular-season honors but lost 82-81 to the Ragin’ Cajuns in the league tournament finals, got all 11 first place votes in the preseason coaches’ poll announced Thursday.

“They can have it now,” Marlin said Thursday at the Ragin’ Cajuns’ media day activities. “It doesn’t matter now, it’s preseason. Two years ago there were two teams picked and Elfrid (Payton) was nowhere in sight. Last year Bryant (Mbamalu) was nowhere and he wound up the MVP in the tournament.”

The Cajuns have to replace Payton, a top-10 NBA draft selection who left after his junior year, and the graduated Mbamalu this season, but Marlin said this year’s unit is going to be more balanced than last year’s 23-12 squad.

“We have a lot of guys that can score,” he said. “I’ll be surprised if we don’t shoot better as a team, and I know we’re going to have a better defensive and rebounding club.”

The Cajuns averaged a Sun Belt-leading 81 points per game last season, but Marlin said that wasn’t the most important factor in his squad winning 11 of 13 to end the regular season.

“Rebounding was the key in us making that stretch run,” he said, “and we’re a lot more excited about our rebounding chances this year.”

UL-Lafayette is at the halfway point of “official” preseason practices, with its 15th of the 30 allowed sessions set for Friday. The Cajuns open their season with a Nov. 5 exhibition against Loyola (N.O.) and tip off the regular season in a Friday, Nov. 14, game against Louisiana College in the Cajundome.

Junior forward Shawn Long, who averaged 18.6 points and 10.4 rebounds last year, was named to the preseason All-Sun Belt first team after making first-team all-league last winter. Long is one of only three active players nationally to have averaged a double-double in each of the past two seasons.

Senior guard Xavian Rimmer, who had 24- and 27-point games in helping UL-Lafayette take three straight wins in last year’s Sun Belt Tournament in New Orleans, was named to the preseason second team.

Three other returnees averaged double-digit minutes last year – guards Kasey Shepherd and Steven Wronkoski and postman J. J. Davenport. Marlin, though, is equally excited about his newcomer class, a group that includes Baton Rouge product and Oklahoma State transfer Brian Williams and promising junior college signee Devonta Walker.

“Brian can really rebound the ball and Devonta may be our best rebounder, period,” Marlin said. “We’re going to be a lot deeper down low ... I told Shawn this summer if he’s going to get 10 (rebounds) this year he better get busy.”

Cajun women

UL-Lafayette’s women’s squad was tabbed sixth out of 11 squads in the Sun Belt’s preseason coaches’ poll, and that’s right where third-year coach Garry Brodhead expected.

“I like our matchups with the teams above us,” Brodhead said Thursday, “but preseason polls are what they are. I feel like this year we can make a big step.”

The Cajun women finished 14-16 last year, going 7-11 for seventh place in the Sun Belt after injuries wracked the squad. This year, their six leading scorers return ... if they can stay healthy. Brodhead said that five players sat out Thursday’s practice session, and that returning guard Sylvana Okde will redshirt this year after offseason MCL surgery.

Keke Veal, last year’s leading scorer (11.9), missed more than half the season with a knee injury and is still rounding into shape. Fellow junior and point guard Kia Wilridge (9.0) also had nine injury absences last season. Both were picked on the preseason all-Sun Belt squad, Veal on the second team and Wilridge on the third team.

“I thought we could have won 20 if we’d had her all year,” Brodhead said of Veal. “Kia’s got a broken finger that’s going to keep her out three or four weeks and she’s the soul of our defense.

“It doesn’t look good or feel good right now with all the injuries, but our seven freshmen are getting a lot of reps right now and in the long run we’re going to need some of them.”

The Cajuns open with two exhibitions against LSU-Alexandria on Nov. 5 and Spring Hill on Nov. 10 and open the regular season on Friday, Nov. 14, at Lamar.