LAFAYETTE — On a night when his team dominated and stud big man Shawn Long turned in an 18-point, 15-rebound gem, Louisiana-Lafayette coach Bob Marlin made it clear that if his team reaches the heights it’s capable of, it’ll be carried on the swift legs of his guards.
Though Long grabbed the headline in that game, the guards quietly did their part to ensure a win. The starting backcourt combined to score 37 points, grab 10 rebounds, and hand out six assists against two turnovers while playing a solid defensive game against Appalachian State’s backcourt in a 79-58 win Saturday.
“It’s college basketball … you win with guards,” Marlin said after the game. “It’s nice to have a big guy like 21 (Long) in the middle, but guard play is going to dictate how your season goes.”
The offense flows through the guards. They control the tempo and where the ball goes. Their proficiency handling the ball will determine a team’s turnover rate.
“The offense doesn’t start without the guards,” senior Kasey Shepherd said. “We call the plays, we’ve got to make sure everybody’s in the right position, and the ball is in our hands most of the time. We have to make sure things run smoothly so we can get the ball to a guy like Shawn Long and let him do what he does.”
They are the first to meet the opponent on the defensive end and the last line of defense against perimeter shooting, where opponents have frequently targeted the Cajuns.
“We’re kind of like the front line of the defense, the front line of the offense,” guard Johnathan Stove said. “We’ve got to get everything going. Everything flows through us, basically. It’s really important. Honestly, it’s hard to win without good guard play.”
As great as it is to count on one of the nation’s most productive big men in Long to do the heavy lifting, both Marlin and Long know it’ll be the little guys who are ultimately responsible for the team’s success.
“It’s simple: That’s where the ball starts,” Long said. “I can see where (Marlin is) coming from, that makes sense to me. … You can have a great big, but it takes the guards to get the ball to the big.”
And the Cajuns have plenty of guards at their disposal, each with his own unique strengths.
Long used a metaphor to describe the members of the Cajuns backcourt that should ring true for anyone who either raised kids or grew up in the 1990s.
“You ever seen Power Rangers?” Long asked. “You know how they all come together to form the big one? You bring all those guys together, they all help our team in the long run.”
There’s Stove, the swingman defensive stopper. There’s Shepherd, the offensive dynamo capable of scoring inside and out. There’s point guard Jay Wright, possibly the most complete player on the Cajuns roster, a facilitator and ace defender all in one. There’s sharp-shooter Hayward Register, who can turn a game on its heels when he gets hot. Add to the mix Steve Wronkoski and Tyrone Wooten, who Marlin said he wants to get more playing time.
None of those players are perfect, either. Their strength comes in numbers and Marlin’s ability to layer them together.
“It makes it easier on coach Marlin because he has so many tools, so many different weapons,” Shepherd said. “On any given night, anybody is capable of coming in and having a big game.
“It also makes it easier because the matchups are going to be different every game, so you won’t get the same results from every player every game.”
Marlin and the Cajuns haven’t quite found the magic combination yet. He said his backcourt still needs to improve its shooting, and the Cajuns have yet to prove they can consistently guard against the 3-pointer.
But with conference play in full swing, the group is aware of its importance and the need for it to play at a high level on a nightly basis.
“(Long) can’t do it all by himself,” Shepherd said. “Coach has kind of drilled into my head that regardless of how well Shawn plays, if our guards get outplayed, it’s going to be tough to win in any game.”