The holiday break is over.
The grind of the Sun Belt Conference season — pandemic style — begins at 6 p.m. Friday against Texas State at the Cajundome.
What that means is the UL Ragin’ Cajuns will then turn around and play Texas State again at 4 p.m. Saturday in what amounts to a baseball-style two-game weekend series each weekend as the basis of the league’s coronavirus scheduling protocols for the 2020-21 season.
“Our guys we understand it’s going to be a grind playing those back-to-back (conference) games,” UL senior guard Cedric Russell said. “That’s why coach has an early practice right after a game, so we can get our bodies in a routine of being able to go back-to-back and taking that pounding, so we can get ready for conference.
“We know for sure it’s going to be a tough grind, but I feel like once we settle in and get that momentum back up running, we’ll roll right into the conference season.”
The Cajuns enter the conference season 6-1 on a six-game winning streak, while Texas State is 6-3. UL hasn’t played since beating McNeese State on Dec. 19.
The Bobcats have losses to Mississippi State 68-51 and Texas 74-53 and most recently defeated Denver 70-68 and Northern Arizona 70-65 in a tournament on Dec. 19 and 21.
Texas State is shooting 32.8% from 3-point land and is averaging 13.3 turnovers a game this season. Scoring leaders thus far have been Mason Harrell (14.0 points per game, 2.9 rebounds per game) and Caleb Asberry (12.1 ppg, 3.1 rpg).
The Cajuns own a 12-4 series lead over the Bobcats, but Texas State has won three in a row, including its first Cajundome win 68-59 last season.
So far this season, there’s been little secret to UL’s success — defense and rebounding.
Much of that is due to the play of newcomers in the post 6-foot-11 Theo Akwuba and 6-10 Isaiah Richards, as well as a more focused Dou Gueye at forward.
“Those guys work hard each day, before practice after practice during practice,” Russell said of Akwuba and Richards. “Those guys challenge each other — whose going to get the most rebounds. That’s something they made a commitment to doing, and it’s something that’s really helping our season.
“That’s something that we kind of missed last year. It’s a blessing to have that this year. You can always shoot too much or pass too much, but you can never rebound too much. Those two guys own a big presence down there.”
Akwuba is averaging 11 points and 11 rebounds a game so far this season. That success isn’t by accident.
“Every shot that I take in a game, I work on a thousand times with the coaches,” Akwuba said. “I never take shots that I don’t practice on. I think that plays a big part in my efficiency.
“I think we’re going to work on me asking for the ball more, because sometimes I can be a bit passive. Me being more aggressive on the offensive end. Shot selection, I don’t think we’re going to change.”
The real challenge this weekend for the Cajuns figures to be on the offensive end. Truthfully, the Cajuns’ offensive rhythm has been spotty at best for much of the season, largely because they only made 26.6 percent of their 3-point attempts on the season.
Also, the Cajuns are averaging 17.9 turnovers a game, partially because of an abnormally high number of offensive fouls this season.
Essentially, Marlin and his staff is expecting the shooting to improve over time. Now that rebounding and defense can be a strength for the first time in three years, perhaps the Cajuns can finally survive some offensive inconsistencies.
“Rebounding can cure a lot of woes,” Marlin said. “This group’s really good on the glass and consistent.”
Other factors are the leadership of Russell, who is averaging 19.0 points and 3.9 rebounds. But even Russell has struggled so far from the perimeter at 30.9% as a career 36% career shooter from that range.
Also, there’s the all-around excellence of sophomore Mylik Wilson, who is averaging 13.7 points, 4.9 rebounds, 2.2 steals and 3.4 assists so far.
“We need to come back focused and try to get better, because we’ve got a group that can compete for the conference championship,” Marlin said.