Bob Marlin and the members of his Louisiana-Lafayette men’s basketball squad aren’t used to being picked in the second division of the Sun Belt Conference.
But they’re also not too concerned about their seventh-place selection in the 12-team coaches’ preseason poll announced Wednesday.
“It’s preseason,” said junior forward Bryce Washington, one of three returning starters from last year’s 19-15 squad. “You can never tell who’s gonna be the best. What it does, is everybody’s gonna have a chip on their shoulders now.”
“We’re going to take that, and show everybody we’re better than that,” said point guard Jay Wright, the only senior on this year’s Cajuns squad and the only UL-Lafayette player picked on the 15-player preseason all-Sun Belt team selected by the league coaches.
Marlin, entering his seventh season, said that the poll is a reflection of his team having lost the likes of Elfrid Payton and Shawn Long over the past two years. Payton was a top-10 pick in the NBA draft after his junior year in 2015, and Long departed as the school's and Sun Belt’s leading career rebounder last spring.
“I was trying to get us picked 12th,” Marlin said Wednesday during the Cajuns’ media day. “I know it’s for the fans and the media. Once the season starts, people tend to forget about the poll.”
That season gets underway in two weeks when UL-Lafayette meets West Florida in a Thursday, Nov. 3, exhibition game at Blackham Coliseum. The Cajuns will play their first three regular-season home games before moving back into the fully-renovated Cajundome for a Dec. 1 game against Nicholls State.
The first public scrimmage is Thursday, Oct. 27, with the Red-White Game set for 6:30 p.m. at Blackham Coliseum.
The departure of Long, a four-time All-Sun Belt pick who averaged 18.9 points and 12.1 rebounds as a senior, and second-leading scorer Kasey Shepherd (11.4) leaves the Cajuns searching for both scoring and rebounding. But Marlin pointed out that UL-Lafayette is the Sun Belt’s only team with three two-year starters returning in Washington, Wright and junior guard and Christian Life product Johnathan Stove.
The Cajuns are the only Sun Belt team to finish in the top four in the standings and reach the semifinals of the conference tournament in each of the past three seasons.
“We feel pretty confident about where we are,” Marlin said. “We’ve been the most consistent team in the league the last four years, and a lot of that is because of those three guys. They’re the leaders, they’re the team captains. It’s their team now.”
All three returnees averaged almost exactly nine points per game, and all three said it will be a different Cajuns team this season.
“We’re definitely going to play a lot faster than we did last year,” said Stove, who averaged 8.9 points and usually drew the toughest defensive assignment. “There are going to be more lanes for us to drive, but defense is going to be much more our identity.”
UL-Lafayette was one of the few Sun Belt teams with a dominant postman last season, and the league figures to again be guard-oriented with 11 of the 15 preseason all-league picks in the backcourt. The Cajuns will likely join that guard-oriented group, with the 6-foot-6 Washington (8.7, 5.7 rebounds) the only returnee with significant playing time on the front line.
“With Shawn in there, getting 25 and 14 every night, we had to make sure to get him the ball,” said Wright (8.9, 3.5 assists). “This year, our ball movement’s been better in practice, we’re a lot more familiar with the plays we’re running, and I know I’m in a lot better shape.”
Competition for the other starting spots and for time in the playing rotation has been fierce through the team’s first 12 practices, Marlin said. Christian life product Frank Bartley IV, a transfer guard from BYU who sat out last season, is the front-runner at the other backcourt slot. Sophomore Scott Plaisance will likely battle with 6-11 transfer Larenz Stalcup and freshmen Justin Miller and Jerekius Davis for the other slots.
“Competition has been great in practice,” Marlin said. “They get a little chippy at times, but they’re excited to be in the gym. We’re at practice No. 13, and it’s probably time for us to have a bad practice, but we haven’t had it yet.”