Cajuns looking to be more balanced even with return of star Shawn Long _lowres

Advocate staff photo by MATTHEW HINTON--Louisiana Lafayette Ragin Cajuns forward Shawn Long (21) shoots against Georgia State Panthers T.J. Shipes and Georgia State Panthers guard Ryann Green (2) in the Sun Belt Conference Men's Basketball Tournament at UNO Lakefront Arena in New Orleans, La. Saturday, March 14, 2015.

Louisiana-Lafayette’s men’s basketball team has held 21 preseason practices, and Shawn Long has had 20 good ones.

That’s what Ragin’ Cajun coach Bob Marlin says, and what he was hoping for heading into the 2015-16 season, since he knows his 6-foot-11 senior postman is the key to his team returning to the “Big Dance” after a year’s absence.

“He knows it’s his last opportunity to take us back to the NCAA’s,” Marlin said Thursday. “His leadership and maturity have been excellent, but he’s also had very consistent play on the court. He hasn’t had too many off days.”

The Morgan City native is the Sun Belt Conference’s Preseason Player of the Year after spending his summer with Team USA in the Pan American Games, and enters the season as the nation’s active leader in career double-doubles (52).

But Marlin’s team will be far from a one-man show when they make their first appearance against outside competition Monday in a 7:15 p.m. exhibition outing against Mississippi College in the Cajundome. Five regular starters return from last year’s 22-14 unit that reached the quarterfinals of the CollegeInsider.com Tournament before falling to eventual CIT champion Evansville.

In fact, with the Cajuns women also playing at 5 p.m. Monday against LSU-Alexandria in an exhibition twin bill, UL-Lafayette will be a rarity with 10 returning starters in the two games.

The Cajuns men also have seven of their nine top scorers returning to a team that is the preseason Sun Belt favorite in the coaches’ poll and ranked 12th in the Mid-Major Top 25 announced Wednesday by CollegeInsider.com. Mix in transfers Tyrone Wooten, Jay Hedgeman and Marlin’s son Matt Marlin, and highly touted freshmen Kadavion Evans and Jerekius Davis, and UL-Lafayette has an embarrassment of depth riches.

“We’re going to be two-deep everywhere, three deep in a lot of places,” Marlin said. “It’s always important to get your rotation down to a certain number so that you get in a rhythm and have continuity, players know they’ll play and when they’re going to play in roles. Eight or nine is a perfect rotation, but we’ve recently had 10 that play.”

The depth is such that Evans, a product of Shreveport-North Caddo, and Davis, from Jackson, Miss.-Provine, are redshirt candidates.

“We think both of those guys are all-conference guys down the road,” Marlin said. “But do you play maybe six or eight minutes a game and make an impact maybe once or twice, or do you play 30 minutes as a fifth-year senior? We’re going to sit and talk to them before next week.”

The Cajuns open their regular season four days after the exhibition, hosting Louisiana College in a 7 p.m. Friday game before road outings at Miami (Fla.) and Alabama. A December California trip includes a meeting with preseason ranked UCLA.

“Playing in ACC, SEC and Pac-12 arenas will be a good opportunity for us,” Marlin said. “Playing these early games, if you’re not playing the right way you’re going to get beat. We’ll learn where we’re deficient and where we need to shore up on the offensive and defensive ends.”

The Cajuns will almost be playing on a foreign floor for Monday’s exhibition. The squad hasn’t had the chance to practice in the arena so far this year and will get in there for the first time on Sunday.

Junior point guard Jay Wright (9.1, 3.6 assists) and senior wingman Devonta Walker (9.4, 5.3 rebounds) were on the preseason all-league third team and will join now-sophomores Bryce Washington (6.4, 5.2) and Johnathan Stove (5.4, 2.1) in a possible starting lineup for the Monday exhibition. But Marlin said returning senior Kasey Shepherd (9.7) and junior Hawyward Register (6.7) are also possibles for opening night.

“We’ve been working with different groups,” Marlin said. “Kasey and Hayward are spitting some time, Steve (Wronkoski) and Stove are splitting. We could go with different lineups really easily with this group. We can play big or small, we can put a shooting lineup out there. We can do a lot of things on both sides of the ball. I really like our depth and versatility right now.”