It didn’t take very long for the 2019-20 UL Ragin’ Cajuns men’s basketball team to learn what the primary emphasis of the upcoming season is going to be.

UL coach Bob Marlin wasn’t pleased at all with his team’s defensive performance during its 19-13 campaign a year ago.

So from the second practice officially began, the 10-year head coach began hammering home his message.

“It’s been since day one – defense, defense, defense,” junior transfer from Saint Louis Jalen Johnson said. “Close-outs, move your foot, don’t foul, hands off … it’s been defense since the get-go, and right now, we’re getting better and better every day at it. I think this team is going to be a good defensive team.”

That’s the goal anyway.

It’s something Marlin has believed for years and the Cajuns’ shortcomings in that area a year ago made him especially sensitive to the issue.

His preseason philosophy remains the same, “If we play good defense, rebound the ball and stay healthy, then good things can happen.”

Selling defense-first can be tough at times, but Johnson believes Marlin’s staff has pulled it off.

“I don’t think any basketball player that plays the game understands the value of defense until it actually pays off in the end,” he said. “We just had to be loud, being active, having a lot of energy. Just going through it together and fighting through fatigue, staying in the stance, not fouling, taking our coach fussing at her to help making us better. Just us as a team coming together.”

A year ago, the Cajuns averaged 81.6 points a game and gave up 80.5. UL shot 44.5 from the field, while opponents hit 46.3 percent of their shots.

“I think we’re farther along than we’ve been in the past,” Marlin said. “Having a whole new group it’s been really fun to teach these guys and watch them progress.”

Limiting scoring will be critical considering the Cajuns have nine newcomers on this year’s squad and lost almost three-quarters of the team’s scoring from last season.

Returning guards in junior Cedric Russell (9.7 ppg last year) and senior P.J. Hardy (6.9 ppg) account for the vast majority of returning points. The rest remains to be seen.

Johnson averaged 9.1 points as a sophomore at Saint Louis before sitting out last season as a 39-percent shooter behind the arc.

Two junior college transfers should bolster the attack, including 6-9 forward Dou Gueye and 6-8 junior Tirus Smith.

“I like the fact that he plays hard,” Marlin said of the Senegal native Gueye from Dayton State College. “He can score. He does a lot of things well. He doesn’t do anything great, except for rebounding in my opinion and play defense.

“Offensively, he’s got a mid-range game, he’s got a 3-point game and he can score inside a little bit, but he’s not a back-to-the-basket player. And he’s an excellent perimeter defense who can really sit down and guard people like Johnathan Stove could for us.”

More potential scoring could be provided by true freshmen guards Javonne Lowery and Mylik Wilson, as well as redshirt freshman Kobe Julien back from a knee injury.

“I think scoring will be a team effort this year,” Marlin said.

Once the dust settles, Marlin said he foresees an “eight or nine-man rotation.”

A huge obstacle to progress already, though, has been the injury bug. Sophomore transfer Durey Cadwell is already out of the season with a patella injury.

“That hurts because he’s a 6-5 sophomore who is very bright young man,” Marlin said. “He understands what we’re doing on the court. He’s really good defensively and a 40-percent 3-point shooter. He could have played anywhere from the 2 to the 4 for us and that’ll hurt us.”

Mason Aucoin, the only other senior but not a regular, has been out with a summer back injury. Sophomore point guard Trajan Wesley missed several weeks of practice with a recurring foot injury, but he’s back.

Meanwhile, Smith has “a health condition” and it’s unknown how long he’ll be out.

“We’ve got a really good group of young men who are high-character guys,” Marlin said. “They certainly work hard and they’ve been fun to be around, as well as fun to coach. There’s always a bit of anticipation when you go into a new year with a new group.

“We’ve got a really good vibe with this team. It’s a high-character group.”

Email Kevin Foote at kfoote@theadvocate.com.