LAFAYETTE — When Louisiana-Lafayette coach Bob Marlin flips his wall calendar to March, he wants his team to be playing its best basketball of the year.
Using that as a guideline, this has been a good year for Marlin, whose team has won six consecutive games as it gets set to cast off on its postseason journey Friday.
The Cajuns (19-12) begin their quest to repeat as Sun Belt Conference tournament champions at 5 p.m. and make a return trip to the NCAA tournament. Standing in their way is the tournament’s bottom seed Texas State (14-16), who beat UT-Arlington 68-62 in Thursday’s first round.
The Cajuns swept the season series with the Bobcats, beating them by 18 in their last meeting.
“I told our players that was the one time I thought they quit on me,” said Texas State coach Danny Kaspar. “ … We’re going to have to play very aggressive and intelligent to beat this team because they’re well coached and they’ve got a lot of talent.”
Offensively, the Cajuns led the league in points per game with 78.1, and it all starts with first-team All-SBC forward Shawn Long.
Long finished fourth in the league in scoring with 17 points per game as the focal point of the Cajuns offense. Marlin said while he won’t necessarily force-feed Long looking for him to score, he wants to run his offensive sets through Long in the tournament.
“We have an equal opportunity offense,” Marlin said. “We want to play inside-out, and that’s part of the theme this week going into the tournament. Utilize Shawn as an inside guy and kick it out, make some 3-point shots.”
Lately, the guys knocking down those outside shots have been point guard Jay Wright and shooting guard Hayward Register, who have combined to score 25.3 points per game during the Cajuns six-game winning streak.
Wright has been especially consistent on the offensive end during the streak. He topped 13 points just four times in his first 24 games as a Cajun, but did it in each of the last six.
“Jay’s played extremely well the last couple of games and hopefully that’ll continue,” Marlin said.
The Cajuns’ six-game streak has an already confident group feeling good about its chances of taking care of business this weekend.
“I feel really confident,” Wright said. “We’ve won six in a row. We know what we have to do to take the win.”
Last season, the Cajuns went into the tournament as the No. 3 seed having won eight of their final 10 regular-season games. They carried that strong finish into the tournament, where they won a pair of one-point games to advance to the big dance.
Who knows what will happen this year. The Cajuns once again have won eight of their final 10 regular-season games heading into the tournament, and they’re hoping the experience last year will give them an edge.
“We know we’ve been there before,” Marlin said. “It goes back to the confidence, the way we’re playing, we’re at a good place right now. You want to play your best in March, that’s where we are.”
“I think cutting down the nets last year certainly can only help our guys knowing that they’ve been there.”
Ladies aim for tournament
After knocking off No. 3 seed Troy 66-52 in the first round of the tournament, the Cajuns ladies will get No. 2 seed Arkansas State in the tournament semi-final Friday at 2 p.m. The Cajuns split the seasons series with the Red Wolves, but lost by 22 points in the regular season finale.
The Cajuns used what has been a tried and true method for them in their win against Troy. They got double-figure scoring efforts from guards Keke Veal, Kia Wilridge and Jaylin Gordon, and they played stifling defense, limiting Troy to 26 points in each half.
But they also got a big performance from freshman forward Simone Fields, who turned in her first career double double with 15 points and 10 rebounds in the win.
The Red Wolves have the Sun Belt Player of the Year in Aundrea Gamble on their squad. Gamble scored a game-high 19 points to go along with six assists and four rebounds in Arkansas State’s 67-52 win against Appalachian State Wednesday.