UL men’s basketball coach Bob Marlin says it’s not too early to start scoreboard watching.
The Ragin’ Cajuns have six Sun Belt Conference games remaining over the next three weekends. Every team in the conference has either five or six games left, and all 12 teams still have a chance to finish with a winning conference record in a tightly-bunched standings list.
“Every game’s going to be in that mode,” said Marlin, whose squad makes the Texas swing Thursday and Saturday at UT Arlington and Texas State. “The deeper you get into conference play, each game’s important. We have six or seven teams within two games of each other. Everything’s balanced throughout conference play, and one game can mean a big difference so you have to put a lot of weight on the next game.”
The Cajuns (15-10, 6-6) are in a three-way tie for fifth in this week’s standings, and split two games with two teams ahead of them in the standings in Georgia State (2nd, 9-4) and Georgia Southern (tied for 3rd, 8-5). The other two teams ahead of them are the two Texas teams entering Thursday’s 7 p.m. game at UTA (12-14, 8-5) and Saturday’s 4 p.m. game at front-running Texas State (21-5, 10-3).
In the vagaries of the Sun Belt schedule, this weekend’s games are the only meetings for UL-Lafayette with the league’s two Texas teams. The Cajuns also play the relatively-nearby Alabama teams (South Alabama and Troy) only once each this season, while playing the far-flung Georgia and Carolina teams (Appalachian State and Coastal Carolina) two times each.
“The Georgia trip was tough for us,” Marlin said, “just like they all are. But it’s tough for teams coming in here and playing us and Monroe. We got a split on the Georgia trip and we need to split on this trip. We’re playing some teams we can catch, so we have to continue to push and get separation.”
UL had been saddled with a three-game losing streak before its 76-72 nationally-televised win over Georgia State 10 days ago, getting revenge for an earlier road loss to the Panthers. On Saturday, the Cajuns did the same thing in their 83-76 win over in-state rival UL-Monroe, after falling 99-95 in Monroe three weeks earlier.
“It’s important for us to play with confidence,” Marlin said. “After we played well against Georgia State, we had some time off and were able to rest up some and then get back on a normal routine last Wednesday. We played well again, there was a lot of excitement in the locker room and I hope we can carry that over. It’s definitely a lighter mood in practice.”
Senior point guard Marcus Stroman’s contributions to Saturday’s win went well beyond his team-high 22-point performance, Marlin said.
“He’s just different from a lot of other guards,” Marlin said after Stroman’s 8-of-11 shooting night that also included nine rebounds, two steals, three offensive rebounds and only three turnovers. “He’s going to penetrate and get the ball to the basket, and he certainly helped in a lot of other ways.”
Marlin pointed out that shooting and compared it to the defensive job he and other Cajuns guards did on ULM’s high-scoring backcourt combo of Sun Belt leading scorer Daishon Smith and Michael Ertel. Smith had scored 38 and 36 in his past two games and Ertel had 23 in the first meeting between the teams, but Saturday the two combined for 37 points on 13-of-34 shooting.
“Smith got 25 on 22 shots and Marcus got 22 on 11 shots,” Marlin said. “He was very efficient. He was the best guard on the floor, and when he’s the best guard on the floor and JaKeenan is playing at a high level, we have a chance to win basketball games.”
Stroman leads the Sun Belt by a wide margin in assists and ranks 12th nationally at 6.4 per game, and ranks second in the league and 32nd nationally in steals (2.1/game).
His scoring has dropped off from the first half of the season, but Marlin said junior forward Justin Miller was a key factor in the Cajuns’ two recent wins. The 6-foot-6 Miller had 13 rebounds in the win over Georgia State and came back with 12 on Saturday against ULM, when he also had two assists and a key late steal.
“He struggled a little bit in conference play early, he had his worst game of the year at Monroe,” Marlin said. “He didn’t play well in that game, and we reminded him of that last week. He did a great job against Georgia State for us and got us off to a good start when he was rebounding the ball at a high level, and he continued that the other night.”
Miller has had eight offensive rebounds in those two games, and all four of his assists have come in the second half of those games.
“He wants to prove that he will do what’s needed to win,” Marlin said, “and right now he knows that’s rebounding and defense and scoring inside.”
UL-LAFAYETTE (15-10, 6-6) at UT ARLINGTON (12-14, 8-5)
WHEN: Thursday, 7 p.m.
WHERE: College Park Center, Arlington, Texas
RADIO: KHXT-FM 107.9, KPEL-AM 1420