LAFAYETTE — The 2014-15 Ragin’ Cajuns believe they are the class of the Sun Belt Conference —– and they always have.
That belief didn’t waver when they got off to a slow start, losing three of Louisiana-Lafayette first four games.
It surged when they sprinted out to a 4-0 start in SBC play, a streak that culminated with an emotional 84-80 win against rival Georgia State.
Even when the Cajuns started to stumble, following their 4-0 start with an ugly 3-7 stretch, they somehow didn’t lose faith in themselves.
Well, not completely.
“It was tough,” said junior guard Kasey Shepherd, who was one of the players to publicly declare his belief that the Cajuns were the best in the league earlier this year. “I think for a few of us, especially myself, our self esteem took a little hit.”
Arrogance doesn’t change for anybody. Arrogance puts the blinders on and tries to run right on through the brick wall, giving its good buddy Hubris a high-five on the way.
This is why the word arrogant doesn’t necessarily apply to this team, not fully. As stubborn as the Cajuns’ belief has been in themselves, they saved their season and are in position to prove why their belief has been so strong because they were willing to change.
The Cajuns realized that they couldn’t simply continue to proclaim themselves as the class of the conference if they didn’t fundamentally change something about the way they played.
Namely, they would have to figure out how to play defense, because scoring a bunch simply wasn’t cutting it.
The Cajuns have basically gone wire-to-wire as the league’s top scoring team. They finished the regular season scoring 78.7 points per game, 5.4 more than the league’s second-highest scoring team, Georgia State.
They have the league’s best interior scorer in junior forward Shawn Long. They have shot the 3-pointer better than anybody else in the league and had at least five players who could legitimately average double figures.
With all these scoring options, why were they struggling?
You could see where the wheels started turning in their heads.
“For us not to come out and play as well defensively as we can, that’s disappointing,” said Long after an 89-82 home loss to South Alabama. “We can’t just outscore everybody.”
Changing the way you think about the game isn’t easy. The Cajuns had to go through more struggles before the message was finally hammered home. Again, it took South Alabama shooting the lights out, this time on the road.
“When we lost to South Alabama on the road, we realized that if we were going to win we had to play defense,” Shepherd said. “We had to defend like a championship team. Since that loss that’s what we’ve been doing, and as you can see we’ve improved.”
The second South Alabama loss marked the halfway point in SBC play, and Shepherd’s right, the team has markedly improved since that loss.
In the Cajuns first 10 conference games, they held their opponent under 40 percent shooting just three times, and they allowed their opponents to top 50 percent on four separate occasions.
They’ve completely flipped the script in the second half of conference play, holding six teams under 40 percent while allowing two opponents to top 50 percent.
And Voila! The Cajuns won eight of their final 10 games, including six straight to end the season. They also found out through that stretch that the high-volume scoring that was their early-season hallmark became easier when you were getting it done on the other end.
“Both ends feed into each other,” Shepherd said. “When you play good defense you do well on offense; when you make shots, it increases your energy and you’re more active on defense. They go hand in hand.
“The emphasis now for us is on defense and playing off our defense, as opposed to at first when we were just trying to score. I think that’s what’s helped us so much, that’s what’s enabled us to turn it around.”
Now, finally, this team’s confidence in itself has been validated by its performance on the court.
“Everybody on the team wants to win, everybody’s bought in,” said point guard Jay Wright. “We’ve just got to do what we do.”
What is it the Cajuns do? They believe in themselves, they score a lot of buckets, and lately, they play both ways.