With the regular season in the books, the Louisiana-Lafayette men’s basketball team now at least has a general idea of the route it’ll need to take to get back into the NCAA tournament.
With a dominant final 23 minutes of their 81-57 win against Arkansas State on Saturday, during which the Cajuns outscored the Red Wolves 50-29, the Cajuns are heading into the Sun Belt Conference tournament as winners of six straight.
Their win streak at the tail end of the season allowed them to secure the No. 4 seed and a first-round bye in the tournament.
The Cajuns will face the winner of the tournament’s No. 5 vs. No. 8 matchup between Texas State and UT-Arlington.
In the regular season, the Cajuns split the matchup with No. 5 UT-Arlington and swept Texas State. The Mavericks also swept Texas State this season.
If the Cajuns win their first tournament game, they will face SBC regular-season champion Georgia State in the semifinals.
Those two teams have combined for some memorable performances against each other in the past two years, especially in last season’s SBC tournament final, when the Cajuns outlasted the Panthers 82-81 in overtime.
If the Cajuns lose at any point in the tournament, their season will be finished, as the SBC is expected to only send its tournament champion to the NCAA tournament.
Ladies face uphill battle
After dropping two straight to close the regular season, the Cajuns women will have to win the tournament as the No. 6 seed.
First up for the ladies is Troy, which the Cajuns lost to by five points in both of their regular-season matchups.
If the UL-Lafayette beat Troy, they’ll face the winner of the Appalachian State/Arkansas State game, which the Red Wolves will be heavily favored to win.
The Cajuns split the season series with both Appalachian State and Arkansas State, but lost by 22 points to the Red Wolves in the season finale. Arkansas State is the tournament’s No. 2 seed after rolling to a 16-4 finish in league play.
Marksmanship or defense
The key to the men’s team’s strong play to close out the season? Well, it’s a mixture of a couple of things.
When the Cajuns were going through a miserable 3-7 stretch during the middle of the conference slate, they were playing their worst defense of the year and were struggling to knock down open shots.
During that 10-game stretch, the Cajuns connected on just 32 percent of their 3-point attempts and that’s including a 96-59 win against Arkansas State where the Cajuns knocked down 14-of-22 from 3-point range.
Take that anomalous game out of the equation, and the Cajuns were making just 28.3 percent of their shots from beyond the arc, a stat that looks even worse when considering what their opponents were doing.
The Cajuns allowed their opponents to shoot 45.7 percent from the floor during that 3-7 skid, including a 43.2 percent clip from deep. Those figures balloon to 46.6 and 45 percent, respectively, without Arkansas State’s clunker of a performance.
Perhaps it’s because the Cajuns have one of the league’s better shot blockers inside in Shawn Long, but opponents started focusing on beating the Cajuns from the perimeter. In back-to-back games, Georgia State (16-26) and UT-Arlington (15-24) connected on a combined 31 of 50 shots from 3-point range.
Take out the Arkansas State game again, and the Cajuns were being outscored by an average of 10 points per game.
But they righted the ship, and more specifically, they did it on the perimeter.
The Cajuns shooting percentage hasn’t taken a huge spike in their six-game win streak, jumping from 41.3 percent to 44.9, but their 3-point shooting is up near 40 percent.
Conversely, opponents have connected on just 27.4 percent from beyond the arc during the Cajuns’ streak, and just 39.9 percent overall.
The Cajuns have outscored their opponents by nearly 13 points per game during the streak, and are without question playing their most complete basketball of the season heading into the tournament.