Feb. 3, 2014 07:00
Marlin-2

UL basketball dropped two in a row at home, and then it snowed.

UL basketball dropped two in a row at home, and then it snowed.

Photo by Buddy Delahoussaye
Coach Bob Marlin

Bob Marlin had a bad week, one as unexpected as a Louisiana snowfall. His UL basketball team started the week with a 3-2 Sun Belt record and the two strongest rivals right where he wanted them: the Cajundome. Conference-leading Georgia State was on the Thursday, Jan. 23, menu and Western Kentucky the following Saturday on national television. With two of the best players in the Sun Belt in Elfrid Payton and Shawn Long, and senior Bryant Mbamalu returning from injury, the Cajuns appeared up to the challenge. Marlin called for 6,000 fans to attend each game. Instead he got 8,727 total, picked up a technical in each game, the Cajuns lost both, and he ended up in sick bay.

As the game clock wound down Saturday the guy next to me said, "Now we'll have to win the conference tournament." I didn't have the heart to tell him it was always that way. UL is one of 351 schools vying for one of the 68 slots in the NCAA tournament. Power ratings determine at-large bids, and conference games in the Sun Belt don't have the clout to afford members the opportunity to compete for bids against Big 10 and ACC schools. For Sun Belt teams it's one (the conference tourney champ) and none. But letting it all ride on the conference tournament is not all bad. Western Kentucky has won the last two tournaments despite finishing no higher than sixth in the regular season. The Hilltoppers' Cinderella scenario will be harder to replicate this year. The Sun Belt changed the tournament format. First and second seeds receive a bye to the semifinals. Third and fourth seeds get a bye to the quarterfinals. Fifth through eighth seeds must win four games in four days to reach the Big Dance.

Can the Cajuns do it? With the best Cajun guard since Andrew Toney and the best big man in the Sun Belt they still have an excellent chance. But there are problems. A more efficient half-court offense and a defense less dependent on Long's shot-blocking would help. The Cajuns big problem, though, is match-ups. UL lacks a running buddy for Long, another tall, quick-jumper to share defensive responsibilities and score around the basket. Marlin's search for big men over the last two years has been one big hit (Long), a few misses, and some projects. Count last year's signees 6-foot-7-inch Luka Kamber and 6-foot-8-inch Vieux Kande among the latter group. Marlin has signed players from Mississippi to Florida and from Croatia to Senegal. You can't blame him. Unlike football, Louisiana is not a hotbed for high school basketball. Of the 117 roster slots on the nine Sun Belt schools besides UL, only 10 are from the Bayou State. Four play at ULM and three at Arkansas State where ex-LSU coach John Brady lives in exile. That all will change next year. Marlin has signed three excellent prospects: Jonathan Stove, a 6-foot-4-inch shooting guard from Baton Rouge and two big men, Scott Plaisance, a 6-foot-9-inch power forward from New Orleans Country Day, and Bryce Washington, a 6-foot-6-inch forward from St. Augustine who "grew up playing point guard."

All fine and good but this is now, and there's plenty left to enjoy at the Cajundome over the next month. With the new tournament format the regular season becomes more important. There's a big difference between second and third, and between fourth and below. Every game matters even more. And there's the pleasure of watching teams evolve and players develop. Remember La'Ryan Gary? Anyone fortunate enough to see Elfrid Payton as a freshman enjoys his current success even more.

Forget about sending Coach Bob Marlin a get-well card. There's no better way to lift his spirits than to show up at the Cajundome.

John Mikell believes energy-efficient air conditioning and football are the keys to Louisiana's future. He lives near Grand Coteau.

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