LAFAYETTE — The Ragin’ Cajuns must have paid attention in chemistry class.
That’s because, even after the Louisiana-Lafayette men’s basketball team’s inauspicious 1-3 start, there was room for optimism.
The limited play and subsequent absence of star forward Shawn Long thanks to a nagging injury certainly didn’t help, but the Cajuns also were breaking in a cadre of newcomers.
“It was rough,” sophomore point guard Jay Wright said. “Eventually we knew it was going to happen; we were going to finally combine together. It worked out for the best. We’re getting better and better every day.”
Wright, Brian Williams and Devonta Walker were logging starters’ minutes, freshmen Johnathan Stove and Bryce Washington were asked to compete right away and none was on the Cajuns’ NCAA tournament team a year ago.
All the time and effort they put in during the offseason and preseason practice was important, but there was no effective way to replicate the proving ground of game conditions.
“We spent a lot of hours together in the summer and the preseason, but nothing gets you ready like a game,” Williams said. “The more we play together, the better we get together.”
Long had a similar assessment.
“Honestly, it took us a little while,” he said. “Going into the season, we still weren’t where I thought we should’ve been. Luckily, we’re coming around at the right time. We’re going to continue to work on it. We’re still not where we need to be to be a championship team, but we’re getting there.”
But before they could think about getting to that point, they had to figure one another out.
The Cajuns’ 1-3 start included winnable losses to Tulsa and Milwaukee. Coach Bob Marlin patiently stuck with his lineup even as Walker and Wright went through offensive struggles and fifth-year senior Williams learned how to play with his new teammates.
“That’s crucial moving forward, to see how we’re going to come together as a team,” Marlin said. “It took some time. We have continued to improve, and I’m certainly proud of the guys. I think they’re starting to settle in. They’ve defined their roles somewhat.”
There have been a few bumps in the road as the newcomers continue to learn the best way to play together, but lately they’ve been operating with a high level of comfort together as the Cajuns have won seven of their past eight.
Walker has shot 60 percent from the field since going 5-for-19 in consecutive losses to Tulsa, Auburn and Milwaukee. Wright has allowed Marlin to play sharp-shooting guard Kasey Shepherd off the ball thanks to his ability to run the offense and play solid on-ball defense. Williams has scored 50 points in the Cajuns’ past three games, and Washington has provided solid depth behind Walker and Long.
And they’re progressing with just about perfect timing, too. The Cajuns have roared out of the gate in Sun Belt Conference play, punctuating their 4-0 league start with a thrilling win against Georgia State.
What’s more, they insist there’s still plenty of room to go.
“I feel like we’ve got a long way to go, honestly,” Williams said. “We’ll keep building chemistry all the way up until the season is over — that’s a thing that just keeps on building.”