If anyone knows what to expect from Texas State’s basketball squad Thursday night, it’s Bob Marlin.
The Louisiana-Lafayette men’s basketball boss is in his sixth season in that role, and TSU coach Danny Kaspar is in his third year with the Bobcats. But the two faced off well before that, dating to when Marlin coached Sam Houston State, Kasper led Stephen F. Austin, and one or the other normally sat atop the Southland Conference standings.
“We had a great rivalry with those teams over the years,” Marlin said. “We competed, and we’re very familiar with their style of play.”
There will be a definite contrast in styles Thursday at the Cajundome when the Ragin’ Cajuns and the Bobcats stage the first of two Sun Belt Conference meetings this year, and when the Cajuns put a four-game win streak on the line.
UL-Lafayette (9-8, 5-3) is averaging 89 points in its past three games after taking an 88-65 runaway win over Troy on Saturday. The Cajuns lead the Sun Belt in scoring and rank 24th nationally with an 82.0 scoring average.
The Bobcats are among the country’s stingiest teams, giving up only 62.2 points per game to rank 13th nationally. Texas State (9-7, 3-4) is also in the nation’s top 20 in fewest turnovers and fewest fouls committed.
The Cajuns were able to overcome the Bobcats’ deliberate pace three times last year, but it wasn’t an easy task. That was particularly true in last year’s Sun Belt Tournament quarterfinals when UL-Lafayette had to claw its way to a 53-43 win.
The Cajuns scored only 18 first-half points and missed their last 16 shots going into halftime, and were down 32-23 before holding TSU to 11 points in the final 15:42. Ironically, it was defense that enabled the favored Cajuns to avoid an early-tournament upset.
“Our defense kept us in that game,” Marlin said. “In the first half we didn’t score, give Texas State some credit for that. But in the last 12 minutes or so, I thought we did a real nice job defensively and on the glass.”
UL-Lafayette has been able to dictate the pace over its past five games, dating to a disturbing 77-57 loss at Little Rock. But Texas State figures to be the most patient foe since that game, and the Bobcats are also building on success after a 78-68 Saturday home victory over an Arkansas State team that beat the Cajuns two weeks ago in Jonesboro. That win snapped a two-game Bobcats losing streak.
The Cajuns’ defensive efforts will be focused on returning all-Sun Belt forward Emani Gant, who is one of only three league players ranked in the top 12 in scoring (13.6), rebounding (7.3) and shooting (.503). Gant averaged 11 points and eight boards in last year’s three meetings, but Cajuns postman Shawn Long topped those marks despite foul trouble in two of the three games.
“(Gant) didn’t have a particularly good game against Arkansas State (on) Saturday,” Marlin said, “so he’ll come out ready to produce against us, and go head-to-head with Shawn like all the bigs in the league do.”
Gant is getting much more help this year from swingman Kavin Gilder-Tilbury (12.8) and senior guard Ethan Montalvo (11.5), who have both nearly doubled their scoring output from last season. The two have combined for 56 of Texas State’s 80 3-point baskets. And fellow returnee Cameron Naylor (8.9, 4.9) had a 20-point, nine-rebound effort in the win over Arkansas State.
“They’re both certainly capable,” Marlin said. “Montalvo had a big game the other night (15 points on five treys against ASU), Tilbury’s doing a good job of scoring the ball and Naylor scan score and is a good rebounder. They’re an improved team over last year.”
Long had 17 points and 13 rebounds in only 23 minutes in San Marcos last year and added 17 points and seven rebounds at the Cajundome, on his way to averaging a double-double last year. Long, who became the first Sun Belt player in history with 2,000 points and 1,000 rebounds in a career last week, has double-doubled in all but one of UL-Lafayette’s eight league games this season.
“He’s worth the price of admission,” Marlin said of Long after his 20-point, 14-rebound Saturday outing after a five-point first half against Troy. “He blocked shots, he protected the rim and he got the crowd energized for us the other night.”