Louisiana-Lafayette’s basketball team hasn’t burst out to a 6-0 start in Sun Belt Conference play since 2000, a season in which the Ragin’ Cajuns won both the Sun Belt regular-season and tournament titles.
Cajun coach Bob Marlin admits there’s a lot of basketball to be played before the Cajuns can start talking about trophies and rings, but he also knows this weekend’s two-game Texas trip could be pivotal in a possible run at those titles.
“I don’t think there’s any overconfidence from these guys yet,” Marlin said Tuesday. “They know what’s at stake. We’ve already talked about them getting back into classes and people congratulating them and patting them on the back. They know they’ve got to keep going and look at the next game, and they’ve been really focused on the process.”
That process takes the Cajuns (15-3, 5-0) to Arlington, Texas, Thursday to take on a Texas-Arlington squad that was the preseason pick to win those titles. The Mavericks (12-7, 3-3) haven’t played up to those lofty projections, but Marlin said that can change in a hurry heading into Thursday’s 7:15 p.m. contest at College Park Center.
“They probably feel like they lost a couple of road games they shouldn’t have,” Marlin said, referring to the Mavs’ road losses at Coastal Carolina, Appalachian State and Arkansas-Little Rock. “They’ve got a couple of first-team all-conference players and they’re both outstanding.”
There was talk that returning Sun Belt Player of the Year Kevin Hervey would declare for the draft after last season, but the 6-foot-9 senior returned and is averaging 20.4 points and 8.6 rebounds while also leading UTA in 3-point baskets (42 in 18 games). Many of those chances came from senior point guard Erick Neal, who ranks fourth nationally in assists (7.8).
The defensive matchups for the Cajuns will be especially important, considering that UL-Lafayette and UTA rank 1-2 in the conference in scoring (84.9 and 79.0). But Marlin said defense has been his team’s strong point, especially since the start of Sun Belt play has held opponents to a league-leading 59.6 points per game and to a .409 shooting mark.
“We didn’t score in the first five and a half minutes on Saturday,” Marlin said of his team’s eventual 82-48 thumping of ULM, “and we were only down 3-0. We’ve given up less points than all but one team in the country over the past three games, so that tells you something. Our defense has been fantastic.”
Many expected the Cajuns to rank among the Sun Belt and the nation’s top scoring teams. Few expected them to hold opposing teams in check as they have in their five conference games, each of which they’ve won by double-digit margins and cleared the bench late in more than one. UL-Lafayette’s five Sun Belt foes have averaged only 25.0 first-half points, only one scoring over 29 points in the opening half, and only 42.0 points at the mid-point of the second half. Only one league foe has managed more than 59 points scored.
“Our defense has been getting us into games in the first half,” Marlin said, “and we’ve had a spurt in the first half almost every game that’s given us an extension and helped us win a lot of games. It’s nice as a coach to not wait for the second half to turn it on.”
Senior guard Frank Bartley (16.1) has been the team’s leading scorer in each of the last four games, even though he and junior JaKeenan Gant had only 12 each in Saturday’s win when UL-Lafayette had seven players score eight or more points. Gant, who missed the previous two games with a hand injury, is at 15.6 per game and senior forward Bryce Washington (10.5, 10.5) leads the conference and is seventh nationally in double-doubes.
WOMEN GO FOR FIVE: The Cajuns women seek their fifth straight Sun Belt victory Thursday at Texas-Arlington.
The Ragin’ Cajuns (9-8, 4-1) swept three home games against Appalachian State, Coastal Carolina and UL-Monroe in a 10-day span, but will now play its next two and five of its next seven on the road beginning with Thursday’s 5 p.m. game against the preseason Sun Belt favorite Mavericks. That poll was taken before UTA (8-9, 2-4) lost all-conference guard Cierra Johnson for the season with an ACL injury in November.
UL-Lafayette is coming off a 63-55 win over ULM that helped the Cajuns tie their best Sun Belt start ever under coach Garry Brodhead. UTA, meanwhile, has lost three in a row including an 85-80 loss at Arkansas State Saturday.