LAFAYETTE — The University of Louisiana at Lafayette men’s basketball team’s NCAA tournament hopes rest largely on the shoulders of one man.
No, not that guy you’re thinking of. Shawn Long is hugely important, there’s no doubt, but he’s going to give you virtually the same thing every night. Twenty or so points, 13-ish rebounds, you can book it. But Long can have — and has had — a monster night that still ends in a Cajuns loss.
It’s the other guy whom the Cajuns should be pinning their hopes to. The one who’s just as capable as Long to go on a 30-point binge, he just hasn’t quite figured out the consistency part that Long has nailed down.
That guy is Kasey Shepherd, and he’s hugely important to the Cajuns hopes in this week’s Sun Belt Conference tournament.
And he knows it, too.
“No pressure,” Shepherd said with a confident laugh.
Shepherd has been a bit of a mystery man for the Cajuns this year. He’s the team’s second-leading scorer at 10.5 points per game and has hit more 3-pointers than anybody on the team this season.
But there have been peaks and valleys to Shepherd’s senior season. He’s been On Kasey/Off Kasey periodically this season, and the Cajuns have usually gone as he has.
“His game is just like the college game, it’s a game of spurts, a game of runs,” coach Bob Marlin said. “When Kasey’s good and in a zone, he’s playing really well.”
When Shepherd is on, he’s really on. He was stroking it in back-to-back games against Georgia State and South Alabama earlier this season, sinking 11 3-pointers in the two games while averaging 23 points.
But when his shot has been off, as it has been lately? The Cajuns tend to be off, too.
“It hasn’t been showing lately, but he’s our best shooter,” Long said. “We’re going to need him to knock down some shots this weekend.”
The Cajuns recently had a stretch where they lost five out of six games. They were challenging for the top spot in the conference, then had trouble holding on to a first-round bye in the conference tournament. In those games, Shepherd shot 9-for-33 from the field, including a 6-for-22 mark from the 3-point line, as he scored just six points per game.
That includes a game in which he played very well, with a caveat. Against UT-Arlington, Shepherd had 16 points on 4-of-6 shooting, with all four of his makes coming from deep. But the way the game ended may have put him on his skid.
“He played very well at Arlington, but he missed the last shot, driving to the basket in regulation,” Marlin said. “Then in overtime, he had the ball and he passed it to Shawn, and Shawn took the perimeter shot.
“When we went to San Marcos, he felt bad about the loss at Arlington, and it affected his play: He didn’t play well at Texas State, he didn’t play well at Troy, he didn’t play well at South (Alabama). But he turned it back around against Georgia Southern.”
That he did. Shepherd carved up the Eagles for 20 points on senior day. He finally got back on track from the perimeter, where he went 3-for-7, but the other parts of his game were working, too.
Shepherd is known for his outside shooting, but he might be most effective when he uses his entire repertoire. He’s lethally effective from the free throw line, making 87.3 percent of his attempts from there. Against Georgia Southern, he got to the stripe eight times and knocked seven of them down.
“I can’t try to score 30 points just shooting 3-pointers,” Shepherd said. “I’ve got to be able to have some freedom to get some transition buckets, take my guy off the dribble a couple of times and drop it off to somebody or get to the free-throw line. Once I start to mix it up like that, shots will just start to fall.
“Kind of how I was Saturday. I hit a couple early, I was able to get some in transition, get to the free-throw line. Before you know it, 20 points. I’ve just got to try to mix it up and score a lot of different ways while having energy on defense, too.”
Maybe that type of game will flip the switch for On Kasey to have an extended run in the Sun Belt Conference tournament. That’s what the Cajuns are hoping for. They’ve also seen him do it before.
Last year, Shepherd made the SBC’s All-Tournament team after averaging 16 points per game off the bench. Long said the tournament environment brings out the best in Shepherd.
Shepherd just said he was a bundle of nerves until he got a couple of possessions under his belt in last year’s tournament. There’s just something about knowing everything’s on the line. It means even more this time, because this is likely the end of his basketball career.
“I don’t try to put too much pressure on myself, but I hold myself to certain expectations,” Shepherd said. “When I get out there, I have to be loose and be free, play my game and bring energy. That’ll affect the whole team, and everybody will kind of feed off that.
“That’s my goal, that’s my plan going into this week. Just let it all hang out.”