LAFAYETTE — On a day his team could have been playing for the CollegeInsider.com tournament championship, University of Louisiana at Lafayette men’s basketball coach Bob Marlin instead took about 20 minutes to put a coda on his team’s 2015-16 season.
“Our season didn’t end the way we wanted it to,” Marlin said.
His players departed last week for spring break, and Marlin gave a news conference recapping what was ultimately a disappointing year while looking ahead to what will be a very different-looking team next season.
Marlin’s time at the podium was wide-ranging and fairly blunt and honest. Here are the key takeaways from the Cajuns coach wrapping up his team’s 19-15 season.
Life after Long
This will be the biggest question facing the Cajuns next season and in the years to follow. Shawn Long, who was named an honorable mention All-American by The Associated Press Tuesday, averaged career highs in points (18.9) and rebounds (12.1) this season. He was the only player in the country to average at least 18 points and 12 rebounds per game.
How exactly does Marlin replace one of the most productive players in school history, not to mention the most dominating individual performer in the Sun Belt Conference this season?
The answer might become apparent when watching the remainder of the NCAA tournament. North Carolina is the only team remaining in the tournament that is led by a big man, 6-foot-10 senior Brice Johnson, in scoring. Johnson is also the only player remaining in the tournament averaging a double-double.
Everyone else is led in scoring by a guard or a small forward, and the guards have dominated the college basketball landscape in recent years.
So while the Cajuns will surely miss the presence of a dominating big man who could be counted on for a double-double almost every night, they won’t bother looking for one big guy to step into his big shoes. A bunch of smaller guys can be responsible for that.
“I feel the game, with its speed and the way it’s played, is headed in that direction,” Marlin said. “More teams are playing small, and we certainly did that some this year. We have the lineup and the capability to do that, we’ve got guys who can play multiple positions, and that certainly allows you to play small.”
The Cajuns will bring back Jay Wright, Johnathan Stove and Hayward Register from this season’s backcourt and add to that mix a couple of redshirted players and a few signees (more on them later).
What if the shots fell?
Marlin was asked a hypothetical question about what type of year he would’ve envisioned his team having if it shot the ball like he thought his team was going to shoot it at the beginning of the year.
He didn’t hesitate with his answer.
“I feel like we would’ve won and been in the NCAA tournament,” Marlin said.
The Cajuns brought back the majority of the team that led the Sun Belt Conference in 3-point shooting in 2014-15, leading to expectations that the team would either stay at that level or improve from the perimeter this season.
But that never materialized. The Cajuns were one of the worst perimeter teams in the country, knocking down just 31 percent of their attempts from the 3-point line. That tied them for 307th of 346 Division I teams.
Kasey Shepherd, Wright, Register and Long, a foursome who combined to take nearly three-quarters of the Cajuns attempts from 3-point range (515-of-716), all took steps backward as 3-point shooters this year, a few of them considerable.
After shooting a team-best 40.5 percent in his first year, Wright saw his percentage dip to 34 as his attempts went way up. Register’s shooting percentage dipped by more than 10 points, and Long’s slipped nearly 10 as well.
“It’s frustrating, because you’re only as good as your players,” Marlin said. “You want to put them in position to be successful, and you know they can make them, they make them in practice. I shared that with you guys all year.
“I had confidence they would make them, but we never did on a consistent basis.”
Steve Wronkoski knocked down 3-pointers at a 35.8 percent clip, and that led the team. That figure would have been the eighth-best mark on the 2014-15 team.
If the Cajuns had simply matched last season’s success rate, when they knocked down 35.8 percent of their shots from 3-point range, while showing their same dogged commitment to perimeter shooting, they would have scored an additional three points per game.
When considering that the Cajuns went 0-5 in games decided by four or fewer points this year, an extra 3-pointer or two could have changed the complexion of their season entirely.
Who’s new, and who’s gone?
One of the hallmarks of this year’s team was its experience. The opposite will be true next year, as the Cajuns will be flush with players who have never suited up in a Cajuns uniform for a game.
Forward Jerekius Davis and guards Kadavion Evans and Frank Bartley IV all used this season as a redshirt year. The Cajuns signed forward Roydell Brown and guard Herman Williams during the early signing period, and Marlin hinted during Tuesday’s news conference that he was not done recruiting guards for his upcoming signing class.
A few on the Cajuns program have raved about Evans’ shooting ability, but Marlin said he needs to add some heft to his slight frame to get regular minutes. Bartley and Evans could be regular contributors next season, though.
Bartley is a 22-year old with two seasons of college eligibility remaining. He spent one year at a preparatory academy and two at Brigham Young before transferring to the Cajuns.
“He brings a lot of experience to the table. He’s also a great defensive player. He’s really good defensively,” Marlin said. “He’ll be a major part of our guard play next year.”
Marlin said Davis also will likely be a part of the rotation next year after learning how to be a college athlete this season.
“Jerekius Davis is a guy that can score the ball and has a ton of talent,” Marlin said. “He learned how to work this year. The college game was new to him.”
One player who won’t be returning next season is forward Jay Hedgeman, who averaged 4.8 points in 24 games for the team as a junior-college transfer before being suspended for the remainder of the season in late February.
Hedgeman was lauded as a team-first player who would make a serious contribution at the beginning of the season, but he struggled to find consistency on the court.
Marlin said Hedgeman requested his release to transfer, and the Cajuns granted that request.