LAFAYETTE — Detractors thought maybe playing in the CollegeInsider.com tournament wasn’t worth the hassle.
As the University of Louisiana at Lafayette men’s basketball team heads into a third-round CIT matchup with Evansville at 7:30 p.m. Thursday in Blackham Coliseum, Cajuns coach Bob Marlin said any opportunity to extend the season is a meaningful one.
“It’s hard to get an NIT bid in a smaller league,” Marlin said. “We are one of 11 teams trying to get an NCAA bid, and only one is going to go. That means you can have a good season and still not be rewarded with postseason play.
“This is the best option for us, and we’re able to go on the road and play some good basketball teams. These are good experiences for our team. And now, playing in Blackham stirs some excitement for Acadiana, and we want a great crowd when we play Evansville. They have a pretty good team.”
The Cajuns (22-13) beat Incarnate Word and Sam Houston State to get to host Thursday’s game against Evansville (21-12). The Aces defeated Eastern Illinois in the second round, and Marlin said the Cajuns coaching staff has been hard at work putting together a game plan for their Missouri Valley opponent.
“I’ve seen them on tape, and I watched the game against Eastern Illinois,” Marlin said. “I’ve talked to some coaches in The Valley to learn a little about them. They have two guys on the Missouri Valley All-Conference team with two from Wichita State and (Seth) Tuttle from Northern Iowa. (Evansville) has 40 percent of the Missouri Valley’s all-conference team, and that’s a pretty good league.”
Evansville is led by D.J. Balentine, who tied for the Missouri Valley scoring lead with Tuttle, the conference player of the year. Balentine scored 19.5 points per game and has 105 assists. Egidiju Mockevicius is Evansville’s other all-conference member, a 6-foot-10 junior from Lithuania who averages 12.5 points and 10.0 rebounds per game.
“They beat Northern Iowa early in the year, and they’ve played a good schedule,” Marlin said. “They have a very good coach in coach (Marty) Simmons. He played for coach (Bobby) Knight at Indiana. He’s a very good coach with Indiana roots, and basketball is in his blood.”
Marlin said the Cajuns set out to win the tournament and said the team’s desire to continue playing is at a high level. He said he hopes playing in Blackham will create an added energy level that should aid the Cajuns on Thursday.
“Realistically, wining an NCAA championship is pretty difficult; winning the NIT maybe has higher odds,” Marlin said. “In this tournament, especially after those first couple rounds, you have a real chance to win.
“We’ve been feeding off each other, but we need to feed off that crowd. A lot of people have talked about coming out to Blackham since I’ve been here, and this will be an opportunity to see if they mean what they said. I think they will. We don’t know when or if we’ll ever get to play in there again.”