MONROE — It’s not the nation’s earliest conference game in college basketball, but Thursday’s battle with Sun Belt Conference and state rival UL-Monroe is plenty early for University of Louisiana at Lafayette men’s coach Bob Marlin.
“It’s just out of character to be playing a conference game the first of December,” Marlin said as his Ragin’ Cajuns (2-2) readied for a 7 p.m. game against the Warhawks (3-2). “It’s important. They’re going to be a factor in the conference standings, so it’s big for us.”
The UL-Lafayette women also open Sun Belt play in the 5 p.m. front end of the doubleheader at Fant-Ewing Coliseum on the ULM campus.
The early Sun Belt contest — no other league teams face off until Dec. 30, when four games begin the regular Sun Belt schedule — came about because of schedule conflicts. Marlin said that the teams could not agree on a later date, and when that happened, he actually tried for an earlier game.
“We wanted to play on that Nov. 13 opening night,” Marlin said.
Both teams have solid returnee groups from last season’s College Basketball Insider postseason tournament teams. The Cajuns have all five starters back from last year’s 22-14 team, while the Warhawks lost only all-league forward Tylor Ongwae. But Marlin said that was a big loss.
“He was their glue guy,” Marlin said, “a really good player. But they’re still very solid, and it’s going to be a very different type of game than some we’ve played.”
The Cajuns are ranked second nationally in scoring at 96.0 points per game. Only The Citadel (97.1) is putting up more points. UL-Lafayette has scored 50 or more points in eight of the 10 halves it has played, including an exhibition game.
ULM is allowing 60.8 points per game, second in the Sun Belt to national defense leader Little Rock (51.0), and opponents are shooting 37.7 percent from the floor and 28.4 percent from 3-point range. The Warhawks are out-rebounding opponents by eight per game.
“This one’s going to be dialed down,” Marlin said. “Our staff figured the magic number is 75 for us to win, and that’s not quite 96. We’ll have to score enough to win, but we’ll also have to defend those guys. We’ll try to speed them up, but it’s hard against a seasoned point guard.”
Marlin said ULM point guard Nick Coppola (7.8 points, 3.8 assists) reminds him of Warhawks coach Keith Richard. Marlin was a graduate assistant coach at ULM during the time that Richard was a three-year starter at the point.
“He’s got a point guard just like him,” Marlin said, “a tough guy to contain. He’s a gutsy player. Against Chattanooga (a 64-54 ULM win Monday night), he scored all his points in the last five minutes and took over.”
ULM’s Majok Deng (16.0 points, 7.2 rebounds) will be in a key matchup with the Cajuns’ Shawn Long. Long (21.3 ppg, 12.0 rpg) is the nation’s active leader in double-doubles (55) and rebounds (1,086). He had a double-double in his 25-point, 16-rebound effort against Loyola by the 5:00 mark of the first half. He also had double-doubles against nationally ranked Miami and Alabama in the Cajuns’ two losses.
“I’m proud of Shawn for the work he’s put in,” Marlin said. “He’s definitely improved offensively and defensively. He’s moving his feet better and staying out of foul trouble.”
UL-Lafayette AT ULM: Two teams with early season success, and two teams that played a pair of overtime games last year, clash in Thursday’s first half of the Sun Belt doubleheader.
The Cajuns (4-1) are coming off wins over Arkansas and Sacred Heart in capturing the San Juan Shootout last weekend. ULM (4-1) has won three in a row, including an 88-84 win over Southeastern Louisiana on Sunday in Hammond.
The Warhawks won in Lafayette 67-60 in overtime last year before the Cajuns won 68-65 in double-overtime in Monroe.
“I don’t feel real comfortable coming back from that (Puerto Rico) trip and going into a conference game,” Cajuns coach Garry Brodhead said. “But it’s part of being in college basketball. We haven’t started 1-0 in conference games since I’ve been here.”
The three-guard tandem of Kia Wilridge (14.0 ppg), Keke Veal (14.0) and Jaylyn Gordon (13.6) pace the Cajuns, who have two wins over Southeastern Conference competition and have lost only at Houston (52-51).