It’s still earlier in the Sun Belt Conference season, but it’s hard to deny the significance of this weekend’s league series for the UL Ragin’ Cajuns.
Coming off a 1-1 home weekend against Texas State, now coach Bob Marlin’s team will face preseason Sun Belt favorites Little Rock loaded with size and talented beginning at 6 p.m. Friday at the Cajundome.
“They’re the No. 1 overall in the league,” Marlin said. “They got two big wins against UTA in Little Rock this past weekend. They shot a great percentage. They’ve got four foreign guys that play heavy minutes.
“It’ll be an excellent game for us come Friday and one we’ll need to play well to win.”
Game two is scheduled for 4 p.m. Saturday between the Cajuns (7-2, 1-1) and visiting Trojans (6-3, 2-0).
Against Texas State last week, UL faced a physical, half-court style, but “Little Rock has bigger players and more of them,” says Marlin.
“They’re more physical,” he said. “They’re going to pound it inside and that’ll be a challenge for us as well, even though the game plan will be similar to what we did against Texas State.”
Marlin is largely referring to 6-10 senior Ruot Monyyong (12.7 pts, 9.4 rebs), who was voted as the preseason Sun Belt Player of the Year, as well as 6-7 sophomore Nikola Maric (15.0 pts, 6.8 rebs) and 6-7 senior Ben Coupet (10.9 pts, 3.7 rebs).
Coupet is coming off a big weekend to earn Sun Belt Player of the Week honors, averaging 26.5 points and 6.5 rebounds in the two wins over UTA. He shot 77.3 percent from the field for the two games, as well as 73.3 from 3-point land and 80 percent at the line.
“We have all kind of options,” Marlin said. “We can play big, small. We have all kind of guys that are fresh that can play hard for four to eight minute period.
“We get trapped sometimes when things aren’t going well and leave Cedric (Russell) and Mylik (Wilson) out there too long at times. They need to rest. We try to play as many people as we can in the first half. I think we played all 11 in the first half on Saturday night – in case we’d need him in the second half.”
One thing that should help UL’s cause is the return of 6-9 forward Dou Gueye, who missed last weekend with COVID-19 issues.
Gueye is averaging 10.4 points and 10.1 rebounds a game so far.
It’s also possible in this matchup UL fans could see 6-11 junior Theo Akwuba (10.8 pts, 10.4 rebs) and 6-10 freshman Isaiah Richards (4.3 pts, 3.4 rebs) on the floor at the same time.
“Possibly,” Marlin explained. “Those guys could play together as well. It just depends on who’s on the floor on the other team. If you’re going to play those two guys together and you’ve got a player like (Texas State’s) Isiah Small, for instance, the other night.
“Dou (Gueye) can guard those guys on the perimeter, but Theo and Isaiah can not. It has to be a matchup situation where you can play guard, or you have to play zone. We chose not to play much zone the other night.”
Either way, Marlin is hoping Akwuba will be more of an offensive force this weekend.
“We didn’t get enough touches for sure for Theo,” he said. “That’s one of our goals. Our guards have to do a better job of getting the ball to the wing and get into a post-entry position and then delivering a pass where he can do something with it. That’s something we’ve talked about and will continue to practice this week.”
One thing Marlin doesn’t want to change is free throw shooting. The Cajuns made all 17 attempts in Saturday’s loss – the first 100 percent shooting night with at least 15 attempts since going 16-for-16 against Florida Atlantic in 2011.
UL leads the all-time series 31-24, including 17-8 at home, but has lost the last two and three of the previous five meetings.
“Need to be able to score,” Marlin said. “We need to be able to defend them on the interior and then we need to score on the interior. We need to make 3-point shots as well. They’ve got a really good team. Their guard, all-conference guard (Nowell) did not play this weekend either and they shot 75 percent.”
Markquis Nowell is Little Rock’s leading scorer at 17 points a game, along with 4.7 rebounds.