There’s a reason that UL-Lafayette coach Garry Brodhead assembled a virtual Southeastern Conference schedule in the pre-conference season, and it wasn’t just to get his team ready for the rigors of Sun Belt Conference play.
He wanted Texas A&M, Mississippi State, Auburn and LSU on his schedule because those four teams matched the styles of play that the Ragin’ Cajuns will see as they go for their fourth straight 20-win season.
“Teams like Troy, they’re so athletic, a lot like Texas A&M and Auburn,” said Brodhead. “Texas-Arlington’s got size, kind of like Mississippi State. After playing those teams, we can kind of draw on what we’ve learned.”
That idea has worked in the past. UL-Lafayette caught fire in February last season, winning six of its final eight regular-season games with the two losses by a combined six points. The Cajuns then won three games as the No. 5 seed in the Sun Belt Tournament in New Orleans, knocking off top-seeded Little Rock in the semifinals before losing to Troy in their first championship appearance since hosting the tournament in 2007.
UL-Lafayette hasn’t fared as well in the pre-conference season this year (5-7) as last year (6-3), but neither have most of the league favorites. UTA, a solid pick to win this year’s crown behind 6-foot-5 senior and Player of the Year Rebekah VanDijk, is only 6-5, second choice Little Rock is 3-8 and third-picked Troy is 5-6.
“Those are still the top teams,” said Brodhead, whose squad was picked fourth by the league coaches in the preseason poll. “But nobody’s separated themselves, and nobody’s really turned any heads in the preseason. It’s going to be like every other year; whoever can stay healthy is going to be in good position.”
Health is something the Cajuns, who were 20-11 last year and won 68 games in the past three seasons, haven’t had. UL-Lafayette sophomore guard and preseason third-team all-league pick Jasmine Thomas missed the first eight games with a torn meniscus and has played only 44 minutes all season. Senior forward Simone Fields, the leading returning scorer (14.2) and rebounder (6.5) from last year, is still plagued by foot problems and has seen her averages drop to 9.3 and 5.3 this year.
Anticipated starters Nekia Jones and Troi Swain, who ranked third and fifth on the squad in scoring last year, and freshman standout Skyler Goodwin from Parkview Baptist have also missed significant time with injuries. But Brodhead figures to have his team at its healthiest all season for Friday’s Sun Belt league opener at Little Rock.
That 3-8 record is deceiving for Little Rock’s Trojans, who have played a brutal schedule following last year’s 25-9 record that included a 17-1 mark in Sun Belt play. In fact, the Trojans had won 18 of 19 games before being upset by the Cajuns in last year’s tournament semifinals. This year, though, Little Rock had to replace its top two scorers after Sharde Collins and Kaitlyn Pratt combined to average 30 points per game.
That’s likely why the coaches tabbed UTA as the favorite. Along with the towering VanDijk (15.5, 8.8), the Mavericks return seniors Cierra Johnson (12.2) and Crystal Allen (8.4) to a squad that won seven of eight to end last year’s regular season. UTA was last year’s No. 2 seed but got popped by Troy 88-59 in the semifinals.
Troy, in fact, won its three tournament games by a combined 76 points, finished 22-11 and ranked seventh nationally in scoring (82.5 points per game). But only senior point guard Amanda Mendoza (7.6, 3.0 assists) returns among the starters.