LAFAYETTE — With the Sun Belt Conference tournament rapidly approaching, the University of Louisiana at Lafayette men’s basketball team is right where it wants to be, playing some of its best basketball of the season.
The Cajuns have won three consecutive games and will put their win streak to the test Saturday against a Georgia Southern squad that comes in tied at the top of the Sun Belt standings.
The key to UL-Lafayette’s recent and timely surge can be sourced to improved execution on the defensive end. And perhaps that can be attributed to a better understanding from the players about their roles on the team.
“The players have defined their roles more so now than at any time of the season,” coach Bob Marlin said. “The coaches may have helped in that just because we were so poor defensively in a couple games that we opened it up. Our guard play has improved since then.”
Marlin made a change in his regular starting lineup after South Alabama raced past the Cajuns in the second half on Jan. 29, inserting guard Hayward Register as the starter at shooting guard and largely relying on freshmen Johnathan Stove and Bryce Washington for starter’s minutes.
The results haven’t been perfect since then, but the Cajuns are 5-2 in their past seven games and seem to be clicking on both ends of the floor lately.
In the past two games, against Texas State and UT-Arlington, the Cajuns have limited their opponents to less than 35 percent shooting while shooting better than 45 percent on the offensive end.
Locking down the defensive end of the floor has been crucial to the team’s development.
“We’re coming out there playing with intensity on the defensive end, that’s mainly what we’re focusing on,” Register said. “Once we got that down, you see what happens. We win.”
But the Cajuns couldn’t get the defensive side in order until every player understood his role and executed the task assigned to him. With a better understanding of that, the Cajuns have started to excel.
“Everybody being on the same page, that’s probably the biggest thing,” junior guard Kasey Shepherd said. “Whenever we get into a game, we have a game plan. You’ve got seven, eight, nine guys executing, then you give yourself a good chance to win.
“When they give us a good defensive scheme and we buy into it and execute it 100 percent, it helps our defense out.”
Shepherd is one of the Cajuns players who had to adjust his role as the season went on. He started the year on the bench, moved into a starter’s role, then shifted back to the bench. He said the mentality shift is not easy going from starter to the bench, but he has learned to accept and embrace the role given to him by coaches.
“I think our guys feel confident at this stage, and that’s part of coaching,” Marlin said. “You want to put them in the right mental frame of mind. We have guys that can shoot, we have guys that can pass, dribble, rebound and defend. I think our guys are doing that right now at a high level.”
With their current roles established, the Cajuns are playing some of their best basketball of the season at the right time. But they know they have to keep their defensive efforts going at a high level if they want to return to the NCAA tournament.
“We have to defend in order to advance,” Marlin said.