The UL-Lafayette men’s basketball team will have a rare opportunity Friday night for its regular-season opener. So will fans who will travel east this weekend.
The Cajuns hoops team will tip off at 7 p.m. Friday against Ole Miss at The Pavilion. Sixteen hours later, UL-Lafayette’s football team will face off against the Rebels at 11 a.m. Saturday at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium, about one court-length pass from the basketball arena.
“It’s a great way for us to open up,” said basketball coach Bob Marlin, whose team rolled to an easy 112-63 win over outmanned Millsaps College in Thursday’s exhibition game. “To have a chance to play basketball-football back-to-back on the road will make it a lot of fun.”
The basketball game was scheduled not long after the Cajuns had to shuffle football dates with Ole Miss in the offseason. Marlin was traveling when he got a phone call from then-athletic director Scott Farmer, inquiring if he’d be interested in playing the Rebels. Marlin quickly responded yes.
“The chance to play an SEC school first game out, it’s an opportunity that we appreciate,” said Marlin, whose squad is coming off a 21-11 season. “We know from going to other places in the past that it’s tough, but we’ve always felt confident that we could go in and win. We could have last year, but we just didn’t defend well enough.”
The Cajuns lost at Minnesota 86-74 in last year’s opener, falling behind by double-digits in the game’s first five minutes and never getting any closer than eight the rest of the way. UL-Lafayette also fell in the second half of last year’s opening road trip at Montana State, but then won eight in a row.
The Cajuns also lost at Georgia last year, at Alabama early in the 2015-16 season and at Auburn in the MGM Grand tournament to start 2014-15, so they’re no strangers to SEC competition.
This year, though, UL-Lafayette may be better equipped, with a more experienced team and a wave of talented newcomers. Four starters and 10 lettermen return from last season’s squad that won seven in a row before a loss in the Sun Belt Conference tournament.
That group also added three Division I transfers who sat out last season — two of them veterans of SEC battles.
JaKeenan Gant (Missouri) had 14 points in 16 minutes against Millsaps, and Marcus Stroman (South Carolina) started at point guard. Malik Marquetti (Southern California) played more minutes than any other player Thursday, and true freshman Cedric Russell (Alexandria-Peabody) had 11 points including three 3-pointers.
“Those guys just need to play and do the things they’re capable of doing,” Marlin said. “The three transfer guys have been there before, and that’s a strength for us. It’s an SEC game for two of them, so I’m confident they’ll step up.
“Cedric needed to play against live competition with people in the stands, so that was good for him. He may be our best shooter right now.”
The four returning starters all had double-figure scoring efforts against Millsaps. Senior Bryce Washington, coming off a season that included 22 double-doubles, had 13 points and a game-high 10 rebounds, while sophomore Justin Miller had a team-high 15 points off the bench, last year’s Sun Belt Newcomer of the Year Frank Bartley IV had 13 and senior Johnathan Stove had 11.
“We played a team that was short-handed and didn’t have its best two players,” Marlin said of Millsaps, “but we did what we needed to do and what we wanted to see. We shared the ball; we shot it well (57 percent) and we made free throws (19-of-25 after missing three of its first four).”
Ole Miss may be from the same state as the Jackson-based Millsaps squad, but that's the only similarity. Like the Cajuns, the Rebels enter the season with high hopes and new faces. Coach Andy Kennedy has four starters back off a 22-14 team including scoring threats in guards Terence Davis and Deandre Burnett, and the Rebels also have a highly-touted freshman guard, a heralded junior college recruit and some seasoned transfers.
The only notable loss was postman Sebastian Saiz (15.1, 11.4 rebounds), who was one of only four players nationally with more double-doubles than Washington (23).
“We’ll have our hands full,” Marlin said, “but we don’t try to trick our guys. We know we have an older, more mature team this year.”