The Sun Belt Conference ranks its basketball teams in 23 statistical categories in its weekly releases.
This week, UL-Lafayette leads the league in 18 of those 23 categories in conference play.
Apparently, coach Bob Marlin and his staff want that to be a perfect 23 of 23.
“The coaches, they’re pushing us a lot harder than when we were losing games, to be honest,” said senior forward Bryce Washington. “But that’s good. This team wants to be challenged. We’re a lot more mature team than we were before, and we know how to handle that.”
The Cajuns have handled everything thrown at them since the start of Sun Belt play, and they take some impressive streaks into their final one-game week of the season. UL-Lafayette (19-3, 9-0) travels to Monroe to face state rival ULM at 2 p.m. Saturday in its only game this week.
UL-Lafayette swept its January games (7-0) for the first time since 2000, culminating with Saturday’s 81-69 win over Troy. The Cajuns’ 9-0 league mark is the first in school history, and their 11-0 record at the Cajundome ties their best start since the building opened in in 1985. Dating to last season, the winning streaks are 14 straight at home and 15 straight in Sun Belt play.
The most impressive number, though, remains the Cajuns' dominance at the mid-point of Sun Belt play. All nine Cajun wins have been by double-digit margins, a first in league history. The only stat categories in which UL-Lafayette doesn’t lead the league are: field-goal percentage defense (third), total rebounds (second), blocked shots (fifth), turnover margin (fourth) and offensive rebounds (fifth).
The Cajuns lead the league in scoring (80.0), scoring defense (60.4), scoring margin (+19.6), field-goal shooting (.467), 3-point shooting (.397), free-throw shooting (.793), 3-point defense (.291), rebound margin (+10.2), assists (17.3), steals (7.9) and assist/turnover ratio (1.2), among other categories.
For Marlin, the only number that matters is the .864 win percentage that ranks eighth nationally.
“I’m really proud of our guys for the way they’ve handled the success to date,” he said Monday. “We talk about that daily, and they get it. They’re focused on the big picture. They know we’re only at the halfway point. We still have to play four of the people who were picked in front of us in the polls, and three of them are on the road.”
Two of those come next weekend when UL-Lafayette makes the Georgia swing against Georgia State (16-6, 7-2) and Georgia Southern (15-7, 6-3). Georgia State, winner of seven straight, is the only Sun Belt team within two games of the Cajuns in the league standings.
And in the quirks of a 12-team conference, the Georgia teams are the only ones who won’t return trips to the Cajundome this season — making next week’s clashes even more important in the standings.
Marlin is more concerned for the moment with this week’s opponent, especially after ULM (9-11, 3-6) matched the Cajuns in sweeping the league’s Alabama squads over the weekend. The Warhawks rallied from a 14-point deficit to top Troy 76-71 on Thursday, the same night the Cajuns beat South Alabama 76-57, and ULM came back two days later to beat USA 83-74.
“This is going to be the biggest game of the year for them, with us coming in there unbeaten,” Marlin said. “It’s always a tough place for us to go play. We had our way with them here, but they’ve played a lot better and we’re expecting a tough game up there.”
The Cajuns held ULM to its lowest output of the year Jan. 13 at the Cajundome in a runaway 82-48 victory. But the Warhawks had won three straight over UL-Lafayette in Monroe before last year’s game, when Johnathan Stove threw in a 50-footer at the horn to give the Cajuns an 85-84 win after they trailed by seven points with 54 seconds remaining.
RANKERS: Bryce Washington ranks atop the Sun Belt and 10th nationally in total rebounds (239) and rebounding average (10.9), and he's fourth among active Division I players in career rebounds (985), seventh in career double-doubles (34) and 31st in field-goal percentage (.571). He stands fourth in Sun Belt history in career rebounds and is 15 away from becoming the third Cajuns player to record 1,000 rebounds. … JaKeenan Gant, who had a career-high 24 points in Saturday’s win over Troy, leads the Sun Belt in shooting (.608), and point guard Marcus Stroman tops the Sun Belt in assist/turnover ratio (1.85).
MILLER TIME: Sophomore forward Justin Miller, the team’s third-leading rebounder (4.2) to go with his 8.0 scoring average, missed last week’s two games with a concussion suffered in practice last Tuesday. Marlin said he has still not returned to practice but is expected to be cleared for a return later this week. The Owensboro, Kentucky, product was UL-Lafayette's second-leading rebounder (5.6) and fourth-leading scorer (11.4) as a freshman last season.