LAFAYETTE — This isn’t a story about how the UL-Lafayette basketball team can’t win on the road.
That narrative, illustrated by senior guard Kasey Shepherd pantomiming a slash across the throat after being asked about it, is dead and gone.
After dropping their first eight road games of the year — bringing about some pointed questions about the team’s ability to get the job done away from the Cajundome — the Cajuns have won three straight times on the road.
They’ll get another opportunity in the next few weeks to prove themselves on the road, and it’s crucial they do just that. The Cajuns hold a one-game lead on ULM for the all-important No. 2 seed in the conference tournament, and both teams will spend the next two weeks on the road in Texas and Alabama.
“It’s really important, especially coming off a loss. It’d be a big statement if we can shake it off and play how we need to play,” Shepherd said. “Get two wins, go out next week and get two more then come back and finish at home. That’d be really big for us. We’re trying to finish strong at this point.”
While they’ve dismissed their early struggles, asking about why life on the road is more difficult is a worthwhile question, because the Cajuns haven’t been the only team with a wildly disproportionate winning percentage between their home and road schedule.
Teams across college basketball have struggled to win on the road this season. South Carolina is the only Southeastern Conference team with a winning road record. Kansas, Oklahoma and West Virginia, all top-10 teams from the Big 12, are each just a bit better than .500 on the road.
“It has been a trend with major college basketball,” Cajuns coach Bob Marlin said. “(Radio play-by-play man Jay Walker) and I talk about it a lot: Winning on the road in college basketball is one of the hardest things to do.”
Sun Belt Conference teams have been particularly terrible on the road. Entering this week, only two SBC teams — Little Rock (10-3) and UT-Arlington (8-6) — had winning records away from their home court. Overall, the conference has posted a 44-90 record on the road.
It would seem that number is skewed by nonconference road games against tough competition. For instance, several of the Cajuns’ early road losses came to teams like Miami, Alabama, UCLA and Louisiana Tech. But against conference opponents, Sun Belt teams have gone 25-51 on the road, which is an almost identical winning percentage to their road records against nonconference opponents (19-39).
What is it about playing away from home that’s caused such a huge disparity in winning percentage? It’s a bunch of different factors that affect everybody a little bit differently.
Shepherd, for one, is more comfortable playing on the road than at home. Maybe it’s because players aren’t limited to eating whatever is in their fridge at home.
“We always eat good on the road. That’s a positive if you think about it that way,” Shepherd said.
But he’s an outlier. Shepherd’s teammates aren’t as comfortable on the road. Difficulties include the travel itself — like a few weeks ago, when the Cajuns had a four-leg trip to get to Boone, North Carolina, that lasted 11 hours. That trip, by the way, started about eight hours after the Cajuns closed out a heated win in overtime against rival ULM.
“When we went to (Appalachian State), it played a lot on the guys. You could tell we were a little worn out,” senior forward Shawn Long said.
There’s also a break in routine. Visiting teams are at the mercy of their host school when it comes to scheduling practices and shootarounds — with the practices often being shorter than they’re used to. The other usual aspects of game day are then tailored around when the Cajuns can get access to a gym.
The players said this is simply an inconvenience and never a direct reason behind a win or a loss, but the little things start to pile up — especially when nobody is pulling for you.
“You just fall into a comfort zone at home,” senior guard Steven Wronkoski said. “It’s a daily routine, and you’re kind of used to it. On the road, your schedule gets a little messed up. It’s a mindset, too.
“At home you’ve got the fans behind you, and on the road you get a little adversity and you have to battle through the opposing crowd.”
The biggest reason the Cajuns struggled early on the road this season though? Wronkoski went with chemistry. That doesn’t appear to be an issue now for a team that just recently had a nine-game win streak snapped against a Little Rock team that entered Tuesday tied for the best record in college basketball.
Now is a crucial time for the Cajuns to keep building on that chemistry, though. It starts Thursday against a UT-Arlington team that has dominated on its home court, winning by an average margin of 24.2 points per game this season.
That narrative from earlier in the year about the Cajuns not being able to win on the road is dead, and they’re going to do their best to keep it that way.
“Getting those three conference road wins, that was big for us,” Wronkoski said. “Now we feel like every time we go on the road, we can win.”