They led the Sun Belt Conference in scoring by a wide margin last season, but it was the last three defensive stops that guided Louisiana-Lafayette to its first league tournament title and NCAA berth in 14 years.
The Cajuns stymied Arkansas State in the final seconds to win 77-76 in Jonesboro, Arkansas, assuring a top-three seed in the Sun Belt tournament at Lakefront Arena. There, after a quarterfinal win over UT Arlington, the Cajuns got defensive stops at the buzzer against Western Kentucky and Georgia State in one-point semifinal and final wins.
Those stops not only catapulted the Cajuns into the NCAA tournament, but also made it easier for UL-Lafayette coach Bob Marlin to stress defense to what could be an even deeper 2014-15 squad.
“That’s what we’ve worked on all week ... defense and rebounding and communication,” Marlin said after a two-hour practice Wednesday at the Cajundome. “We’ve already shown signs that we can be much better defensively and rebounding.”
That’s saying a lot, since last season’s national Defensive Player of the Year Elfrid Payton bypassed his senior season and took his talents to the NBA draft, in which he was a top-10 selection.
“Elfrid obviously had a lot to do with that,” Marlin said, “but if you look at us down the stretch last year, we played pretty good team defense. We were able to score pretty easily last year, but we’ve got to be better on the defensive end.”
That’s the goal as the Cajuns look to match a 2013-14 season that featured 23 wins, only two regular-season losses after Feb. 1 and 11 wins in the last 13 games of the year before a 76-66 loss to 16th-ranked Creighton in the NCAA Tournament.
“That seems like yesterday,” said junior center Shawn Long, who averaged 18.6 points and 10.4 rebounds and ranked fifth nationally in double-doubles last season. “It was a great experience, and what we’re trying to do now is build so we can get back there.”
“This team has a different mindset,” said senior guard Xavian Rimmer, who had 27 points in the league title game win over Georgia State. “We’ve got to put last year in the past. This is a different team. We’re going to get a lot of rebounds, play a lot of defense and have more leadership.”
The Cajuns are four weeks away from their Nov. 5 exhibition opener against Loyola (New Orleans), and Marlin plans to keep bringing his team along slowly — much like last year, when the slogan “Our Mission is March” came to fruition with the late-season surge.
“Every one of our guys was here in the summer,” said Marlin, who enters his fifth season as the Cajuns coach. “We were able to practice all of June and July, a couple of hours a week as a team and a lot of work in smaller groups. We’ve been able to get a good head start with a new group.”
The Cajuns lost three starters in Payton and departed seniors Bryant Mbamalu — the MVP in the Sun Belt Tournament — and Elridge Moore. But there are also some familiar faces joining Long and Rimmer, including part-time guard starter Stephen Wronkoski and Kasey Shepard, who missed the final 15 games of the season with a knee injury. Senior J. J. Davenport, listed at 355 pounds on the preseason roster, also returns to provide rebounding and inside strength.
The hopes of a second run into the postseason, though, may ride on how quickly two new faces can become ingrained into the Cajuns rotation. Fifth-year senior Brian Williams, a 6-5 player of Baton Rouge-Glen Oaks, transferred from Oklahoma State for his final collegiate season, and junior college transfer Devonta Walker has already impressed practice watchers with his talents around the glass.
“He may be new, but he’s also a very mature player,” Marlin said of Williams. “He’s been through the Big 12 wars and going up against some of the best players in the country. And I’m really excited to see what Devonta can do for us.”
“Brian gives us a lot of leadership,” said Rimmer, himself a transfer last year who saw more and more playing time as the season progressed. “And Devonta brings in that rebounding and pushing the ball up the court.”
It was Rimmer who calmly made two free throws at the end of Wednesday’s practice, when a miss would have extended the workout. Marlin said the team will practice Thursday before taking its last three-day break from drills until Thanksgiving this weekend.
“You look at some of these new guys,” Long said Wednesday. “We’re going to be a better team and a deeper team. I think we’re better at just about every position.”
UL-Lafayette hosts Loyola on Nov. 5, in its exhibition outing and hosts Louisiana College on Nov. 14, in the regular-season opener and in the first of 15 home games. The Cajuns then play four games in the MGM Grand Main Event, going to Tulsa, Oklahoma, on Nov. 17 and to Auburn on Nov. 21 before games against Milwaukee and Oral Roberts on Nov. 24-25 at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas.