LAFAYETTE — Despite the loss of 46 percent of its team scoring, the Most Outstanding Player in the Sun Belt Conference tournament and the best point guard in program history, there’s excitement in the Louisiana-Lafayette men’s basketball camp.
For some, it’s the prospect of continuing last year’s late-season success, a February-through-March streak in which the Ragin’ Cajuns won 11 of their last 13 games and claimed the Sun Belt tournament title. That crown and the accompanying NCAA tournament trip hadn’t happened since 2005.
For others, it’s the chance to see how a solid corps of returnees will mesh with a big group of newcomers — some of whom are already turning heads in practice.
Glen Oaks product Brian Williams transferred from Oklahoma State after graduating in May and is immediately eligible after averaging 6.2 points and 3.4 rebounds last season.
Devonta Walker and Abbeville native Tiremone Williams both came from Western Texas College, and the 6-foot-7 Walker will be an immediate factor for interior scoring and rebounding. Jay Wright only played one year of junior-college ball at Casper College but averaged 16.5 points, 4.5 assists and two steals.
“It started with the coaches and the recruiting process,” said junior Shawn Long, the Sun Belt’s top big man last season after averaging 18.6 points and 10.4 rebounds per game. “They brought in a lot of good new players.
“In my opinion, we’re better in every position. Obviously, we’re not going to be as good at the point guard position, but I think we’ll be more well rounded this year.”
No team in the country would be as good at the point after losing Elfrid Payton, who departed after his junior year and was a top-10 pick in the NBA draft. He was last year’s Lefty Driesell Award winner as the nation’s top defensive player and also averaged 19.2 points and 6.0 rebounds.
Payton had to play a lot of minutes last year (36 per game), but that kind of iron-man effort isn’t in the plan as UL-Lafayette aims toward its exhibition opener in three weeks against Loyola.
“The difference is, we have more depth off the bench,” said senior guard Xavian Rimmer, who scored 24 and 27 points in two of three SBC tournament games. “Last year we had a seven- or eight-man rotation; we can go deeper this year. We’re going to be more team oriented.
“Brian transferring in brings us leadership, defense and rebounding, and Devonta coming in brings a lot of rebounding and scoring the ball from the post. Both of them will help us push the ball.”
The Cajuns averaged a Sun Belt-leading 81 points per game last year thanks to the inside-out play of Long down low and Payton, Rimmer and graduated captain Bryant Mbamalu, who was named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player. The Cajuns also have to replace under-appreciated senior forward Elridge Moore.
“A 6-foot-4, 200-pound guy playing the four is tough, and he struggled scoring at times,” Cajuns coach Bob Marlin said of Moore. “But we don’t win without him. This year, Devonta and Brian give us more size at that spot.
“We were able to score last year pretty easy. I think we’re still going to be able to score the ball, but we’ve got to be better defensively than we were most of last year.”
Defense and rebounding have been the emphasis in the NCAA-limited summer workouts, and the sessions the Cajuns have held since the start of the fall semester. The Cajuns began “official” practice Oct. 3 and completed their first week of drills Thursday before getting the weekend off.
The squad did not get the benefit of a summer trip like the Cajuns had in 2013, when the squad toured Spain for a series of games, but Marlin said this past summer was still well spent.
“The 10 practices we had for Spain sped us up a year ago,” he said, “but this year we had all of our guys in summer school.
“We were able to work them out and get a head start. Basically we practiced in June and July, took August off and came back hard in September to get some conditioning done.”