Cajuns encouraged by close calls on the road _lowres

Advocate staff photo by BRAD BOWIE UL-Lafayette's Elfrid Payton passes the ball around South Alabama's Antoine Allen.

LAFAYETTE — Give Bob Marlin a neutral site for his Louisiana-Lafayette men’s basketball team, and he likes the Cajuns’ chances — especially when it comes to advancing in this week’s Sun Belt Conference men’s basketball tournament.

Third-seeded UL-Lafayette has played SBC teams close on the road this season — even in losses, Marlin said Monday.

The Cajuns (20-11), who have a first-round bye, won’t play until Friday at 8:30 p.m. at New Orleans’ Lakefront Arena against the winner of Thursday night’s contest between No. 6 Texas-Arlington and seventh-seeded Louisiana-Monroe.

Marlin said his team hasn’t been victimized by blowouts when it comes to playing away from Lafayette in league games.

“You have good teams that are getting beat by 25 or 30 points away from home this year, and this team hasn’t done that,” he said. “That’s why we like our chances on a neutral court.”

UL-Lafayette was 4-5 in conference games away from home, however the Cajuns’ widest margin of defeat was by 11-points (80-69) at Little Rock (Jan. 30).

Marlin said he’s pleased the tournament has moved away from its previous neutral site in Hot Springs, Ark., which was the host for four consecutive seasons.

“It’s an easier trip than Hot Springs,” he said. “I like having the tournament in New Orleans, and I think all the coaches (in the conference) feel the same way. It’s a good move for a lot of reasons. We can stay at home and practice, and that’s an advantage, too.”

Marlin said he’s also encouraged about the Cajuns’ chances in the tourney because, in his opinion, UL-Lafayette has played its best basketball of the season recently.

“We’ve won eight of the last 10, and both of those (losses) were by three points,” he said. “If we can play good defense and rebound the basketball, then I like our chances.”

The Cajuns’ 20 victories this year marked the first time since the 2002-03 season that they have reached that mark.

Marlin said the recent play of point guard Elfrid Payton has been crucial for the Cajuns. Payton scored 48 points and rebounded 21 shots in UL-Lafayette’s final two regular season games.

“(Payton) continues to rise to the challenge of everything that we put in front of him,” he said. “He’s controlling the game when he needs to, and (Payton) is really dialed in right now. I think he needs to continue playing at a high level if we are going to cut down the nets in New Orleans.”

While Payton (19.3 points per game) is all over the court, Marlin said the Cajuns also need forward Shawn Long (19.2 points, 10.4 rebounds) to continue to dominate the area around the blocks.