Bob Marlin doesn’t have to prowl social media to know that his UL-Lafayette basketball team is trending upward.
The eight-year Ragin’ Cajun coach does check his @bobbymarlin Twitter account regularly, and what he sees there about his program is the same as Cajun fans are seeing — a lot of positives heading into the 2017-18 season.
“I like our chances,” Marlin said this week, only a few days away from Thursday’s 7 p.m. exhibition opener against Millsaps. “If things fall right and we stay healthy, we have a chance to have a special season.”
Why not? Consider:
UL-Lafayette is coming off a 21-11 season, which included an eight-game win streak and seven straight wins at the end of the year before a loss in the Sun Belt Conference tournament;
The Cajuns have four full-time starters back, all of whom averaged between 9.1 and 15.3 points and between 4.1 and 11.2 rebounds per game;
The squad is bolstered by three heralded transfers from “Power Five” conference programs, all of whom spent last year in the UL-Lafayette program; and the Cajuns have the advantage of their recent summer tour of Cuba, which gave them 10 bonus practice sessions before that trip and three games and other practice sessions while there.
All that will help against a schedule that includes the regular-season opener at Ole Miss on Nov. 10 — one day before the Cajun football team also meets the Rebels in Oxford, Miss. — as well as a tough field in the Cayman Islands Classic and a pre-Christmas trip to Clemson.
It will also be a big asset against an improved Sun Belt, which moved up to 13th in league RPI last season and expects another bounce with several upgraded teams this season. The Cajuns figure to be among those upgraded units, especially since Marlin may have more depth — and experienced depth — than in any of his years heading the UL-Lafayette program.
“We’ve got an older team,” Marlin said. “We’ve got guys that have done it. They know our system, and with them being here we have better relationships with them and they have better with us. They’ve got a better understanding of what I’m looking for and how we expect to play as a program.”
The “older” description includes the three junior transfers, who sat out last year to regain eligibility and have been the source of much anticipation in Cajun fan circles. That interest level spiked even before the start of last season, when Marcus Stroman (South Carolina), JaKeenan Gant (Missouri) and Malik Marquetti (USC) led the “newcomer” team to a win over the returning squad in the preseason Red-White scrimmage.
Stroman had 20 points, 10 rebounds and five assists in that game, Gant had 19 points, 10 boards and four blocks, and Marquetti had the go-ahead basket and two free throws in the final minute. That was the transfer group’s lone public appearance, but they provided stiff practice competition for last year’s team.
“We may have had the best scout-team in the country,” Marlin joked.
This year, they’ll be turned loose to join returning starters Bryce Washington, Frank Bartley, Johnathan Stove and Justin Miller, and a solid corps of four other players who averaged double-figure minutes in support roles last year.
The 6-6 Washington, a senior from New Orleans-St. Augustine, ranked in the nation’s top five in double-doubles (22) and rebounding (11.2) where he led the Sun Belt by a wide margin. He also led the league in field goal percentage (.603).
Bartley, a senior product of Baton Rouge-Christian Life and the son of a former standout Cajun linebacker, was the Sun Belt’s newcomer of the year after averaging 15.2 points and leading the team in three-pointers. Stove also came to the Cajuns from Christian Life, and averaged a career-best 9.1 points last year.
Miller may have been the biggest surprise last season, averaging 11.1 points and 5.2 rebounds as a true freshman and starting 31 of 33 games. The Owensboro, Ky., product scored 21 against a solid Minnesota team in his collegiate debut despite an 86-74 road loss.
The one question is at the point guard slot, where Jay Wright has been a mainstay for three years and was last year’s leading scorer (16.2) while delivering four assists per game and taking Sun Belt defensive player of the year honors. Stroman is the leading candidate to replace Wright, who was a first-round pick in the NBA’s G-League draft over the weekend.
“Marcus is more in the mode of Elfrid (former Cajun and current Orlando Magic point guard Elfrid Payton),” Marlin said. “He’ll get to the paint and break down defenses. He’s not looking to shoot the ball, but he’s going to get us easy baskets. He’s also excellent at the pick-and-roll, maybe the best I’ve ever coached.”