The last time UL-Lafayette’s basketball team faced a similar challenge to this weekend, things worked out pretty well.
In late January, the Ragin’ Cajuns faced a tough Texas swing against Sun Belt Conference preseason favorite Texas-Arlington and a Texas State squad that was in second place in the standings and had won six straight league games.
The Cajuns promptly won those two games by a combined 37 points.
Things likely won’t be that easy Thursday and Saturday, when UL-Lafayette (20-3, 10-0) heads to Georgia to take on second-place Georgia State (18-6, 9-2) and third-place Georgia Southern (16-8, 7-4) in a 48-hour stretch. But, then again …
“We expect to win,” said junior forward JaKeenan Gant, who returns to his home state for the first time in Thursday’s 6:15 p.m. contest at the Georgia State Sports Arena. “Our guys are focused, we’re playing well, and we’re getting a lot of contributions from a lot of guys.”
Gant certainly made contributions of his own in UL-Lafayette’s last outing. Along with his 14 points on 6-of-8 shooting and six rebounds, the athletic 6-foot-8 Gant had a career-high six blocked shots in the Cajuns’ 80-59 win at UL-Monroe on Saturday. In all, the Cajuns had five double-figure scorers, had assists of 23 of 29 made baskets, shot their third-highest percentage of the season (54.7) and won the rebound battle while holding ULM to a 37.9 shooting mark.
“This is kind of like our trip to Arlington and San Marcos,” Cajuns coach Bob Marlin said of the two-game swing against their closest competitors in the Sun Belt title chase. “We had a quick turnaround there, and that ended up being in our favor. We had good focus and good leadership, and I don’t expect anything different this weekend.”
Georgia State may be a sterner test. The Panthers have won nine in a row after road losses at South Alabama and Troy to start the conference season, and five of their last seven wins have been by double-figure margins.
That doesn’t match UL-Lafayette’s streak of 10 straight twin-digit wins, but the Sun Belt is the nation’s only league with two teams among the top 15 in current win streaks and those two teams match up Thursday.
“We’ve struggled over there some,” Marlin said, citing the Cajuns’ three losses in four Sun Belt trips to Atlanta. “These are two teams that rank high in shooting percentage and defensive percentage. There’s a lot of numbers that mirror each other.”
GSU boasts the league’s top scorer in sophomore guard D’Marcus Simonds (21.3), and he isn’t even the hottest Panther. Fellow guard Devin Mitchell hit 10-of-13 three-point shots in a 38-point performance Saturday, leading Georgia State to an 81-51 road dismantling of Little Rock.
Marlin still said that the key for his defense is to keep Simonds in check, comparing the Panthers guard to former Cajun and now NBA standout Elfrid Payton.
“Simonds is a tough matchup for us,” Marlin said. “He’s taller than a lot of point guards (6-foot-3) we’ve faced, and he has a game similar to Elfrid. He’s not a great shooter but he gets to the basket and he’s a handful on ball screens. And their other guys we have to stay close and run them off the line.”
Senior guards Frank Bartley (16.5) and Johnathan Stove (9.8) rank first and fourth on the Cajun squad in scoring, but they’ve also developed a rivalry on the other end of the floor over who defends the opponents’ top guard better. In nine of UL-Lafayette’s 10 conference games, the Cajuns have held their opponents’ leading scorer to six or more points below their season average.
As a team, Cajuns conference opponents are shooting a league-worst 29.1 percent outside the arc. But Georgia State tops the league in field goal defense (39.5) and hasn’t changed defensive strategies from the 2-3 zone that opponents see on almost every possession.
“We’ve played really good defense in this stretch, but so have they,” Marlin said. “We need to keep shooting it well and we need to rebound the basketball.”