Louisiana-Lafayette’s basketball team has four weeks of Sun Belt Conference games remaining, and the Ragin’ Cajuns remain unbeaten in league play.
That means, of course, that some are thinking about the possibility of the Cajuns (20-3, 10-0) running the table in their last eight Sun Belt games.
Don’t count Bob Marlin in that group.
“We’re not concerned about going undefeated,” Marlin said. “We’re concerned about winning the league. We just started the back nine, and we have to keep it in the fairway right now.”
The golf reference isn’t far off, since the Cajuns face a match-play situation this weekend. UL-Lafayette plays the two teams closest to them in the standings and faces both of them on the road in their only meeting of the year — second-place Georgia State (18-6, 9-2) on Thursday and third-place Georgia Southern (16-8, 7-4) on Saturday.
The Cajuns have swept their Sun Belt road series in Arkansas and Texas this year, and no league team has played them within single digits. UL-Lafayette enters Thursday’s game with the ninth-best winning percentage in the country (.870) and are in the top 10 nationally in three statistical categories: seventh in assists (18.0), eighth in scoring margin (15.5) and 10th in rebound margin (7.4).
But this week’s two games are on paper the toughest test of that perfect mark. Only two teams in Sun Belt history have ever gone though a conference season without a loss — a 10-0 South Alabama team in a six-team league in 1978-79 and the Tim Floyd-coached UNO squad that went 18-0 in 1992-93.
On Thursday, UL-Lafayette faces a Panthers team that has won nine in a row, and a team that swept last year’s two games with the Cajuns in what has become an intense rivalry since GSU joined the Sun Belt in 2014.
“Their fans don’t like us very much, but it’s a good rivalry,” said Marlin, whose team hasn’t lost since falling at Clemson on Dec. 22 and has won 17 of 18 since mid-November. “We’re first and second in the league, so whoever wins this one gets a full game up since we only play once. But our guys are excited to be in this position.”
The Cajuns only played once last week, breaking open a close game in the second half and rolling past UL-Monroe 80-59 on the road. Five players scored in double figures and the Cajuns shot 54.7 percent from the floor.
Marlin pointed out his team’s 23 assists on 29 made baskets, but he was obviously happier with his team’s defense after holding the Warhawks under 38 percent from the floor in each half.
“We did that with (point guard) Marcus Stroman on the bench with fouls most of the game,” Marlin said. “P.J. Hardy had played well against Monroe in the past and he had a good week of practice, and it was good to see him do that because we’re going to need him at some point this season.
“Monroe’s one of the better shooting teams in the league and we held them to 2 for 15 from three (-point range). We’ll have to do that again Thursday since Georgia State has several guys that can shoot the three.”
Saturday’s win increased the Cajuns’ average margin of victory in conference games to 19.7, and UL-Lafayette continues to lead the league in almost every statistical category — except for the ones Georgia State leads in (field goal defense, 3-pointers made, blocked shots and turnover margin).
WATCHING THE STANDINGS: UL-Lafayette’s women’s basketball team is paying close attention to the Sun Belt standings this week, despite playing the bottom two teams in the league this weekend.
The Cajuns (11-11, 6-4) are among five teams in a logjam between third and seventh place with four weekends remaining, all of them with records between 9-3 and 7-5. The top four teams get a first-round bye for the Sun Belt tournament March 6-11 at New Orleans’ Lakefront Arena, something coach Garry Brodhead said would be a big help .
“Last year we kind of wore down in that fourth game,” Brodhead said of his team that had to play a first-round game and still reached the tournament final. “We’re right in the mix of getting that bye, but everybody’s so bundled up in the middle. Every game for us has that sense of urgency right now because we match up a lot better against certain teams.”
UL-Lafayette travels to face Georgia State (5-17, 1-10) at 4 p.m. Thursday and finishes that state swing against Georgia Southern (4-18, 1-10) at 1 p.m. Saturday.
“Both of those teams have good guard play,” Brodhead said. “That’s caused us some problems in the past. We just have to go on the road and play like we need to.”
Saturday’s 76-48 win at UL-Monroe was its largest margin ever in a Sun Belt game. Point guard Jasmine Thomas had had a team-high 13 points, seven assists and five steals.
“She looked a lot more comfortable,” Brodhead said of Thomas, who missed the first one-third of the season with a knee injury. “She’s starting to get us going offensively.”
UL-Lafayette at Georgia State
WHEN: 6:15 p.m. Thursday
WHERE: GSU Sports Arena, Atlanta
Radio: KHXT-FM, 107.9