When the UL men’s basketball team returns to the Cajundome at 7 p.m. Tuesday for the first time since Nov. 15, some things about the Ragin’ Cajuns will seem very different for fans who haven’t seen the team since the 73-61 home win over Youngstown State.
And coach Bob Marlin hopes a few things will look exactly the same.
The biggest noticeable change when UL squares off with Southeastern Louisiana for the fourth straight season is personnel.
For one, 6-foot-8 junior forward Tirus Smith is now part of the rotation. The Jones Country Junior College product missed the first four games, including three at home, due to a medical condition, and rejoined the team during the trip west, first in Wyoming on Nov. 21 and then Las Vegas on Nov. 25-26.
“He really gave us a charge off the bench and helped our interior defense,” said Marlin, whose club stands 4-3. “He’s our best post defender. He’s an excellent rebounder. He’s long and he plays hard.”
Smith scored eight points with five rebounds in 18 minutes at Wyoming. He then contributed 11 points and five more boards in the win over Detroit Mercy in 18 minutes before hitting the a wall with no points and no rebounds against UC Irvine.
“To play catch-up, he’s just got to practice more,” Marlin said. “He practiced one day and that was the Wednesday in Laramie (Wyoming) — a place that’s hard to breathe at times supposedly because of the elevation … and had a good game.
“With continued practice, I think that will get him to where he needs to be. And try to get him in shape. He hasn’t been able to do a lot physically. Trying to catch his wind, and Laramie wasn’t a place to catch his wind. He is working hard in practice. He’s had a couple good days. He’ll continue to bolster inside and support our other players there.”
Then there’s senior guard P.J. Hardy, who was still serving an indefinite suspension during the first three home games.
The St. Louis High product only had two points at Wyoming in 19 minutes and five in 11 against Detroit Mercy but got back on track with 18 points in 22 minutes in the loss to Irvine.
“He did make some shots, especially in the second game in Vegas, and it was good to get him going,” Marlin said. “He certainly can bring some shooting to our team, some scoring off the bench.”
For now, having such an experienced player coming off the bench should pay some dividends.
“If you look in previous games, we had guys that were inexperienced coming off the bench,” Marlin said. “Now you’ve got P.J., a senior, you’ve also got Tirus Smith who is back and you always have (freshman) Mylik Wilson came off the bench. So now you’ve got some scoring coming from our bench.”
On the flip side, Marlin hopes Jalen Johnson returns to his early shooting form. Over his first four games, Johnson was averaging 20 points a game with a low of 16.
In the three games out west, he averaged 13 points with a high of 18, going 1 for 12 from 3-point land.
“You’re the focal point of the other team’s scouting report every night,” Marlin said. “You’ve got to learn how to handle that. On the trip, he scored a little bit against Detroit and didn’t score as many against Irvine. On the trip, he goes 1 for 12 from 3. That’s not very characteristic of him at all.
“We shot the 3 good as a team two of the three games, but Jalen didn’t. He’s going to have to continue to prepare and step up his game, because in conference, that’s what we’ll see.”
Then there’s the free-throw shooting that quickly went south when the Cajuns traveled west.
“I was disappointed in our free-throw percentage,” Marlin said. “We leave the state (after Nov. 15 game vs. Youngstown State) and we’re shooting 81 percent. We come back and we’re shooting 71. Really disappointed there.”
Marlin said the Lions are “a guard-heavy” team that figures to pressure and “deny on the wings” with a 2-5 record.
“There’s plenty to work on, and there were some things that we improved on on this long trip,” he said.