Photos by Brad Kemp/Ragin' CajunsIt is difficult to understand someone else’s mind except, of course, the one squirming inside Bobby Jindal’s cranium screaming, “I want to be president.” So you have to wonder why the Sun Belt missed a chance to boost ticket sales by scheduling Georgia State’s visit to UL on Jan. 8 rather than later in the conference season. With students (and the sorely-missed Ragin’ Cajun band) still on semester break, 4,531 braved the cold to witness on of the best basketball games in the Cajundome in recent years. The game between last season’s Sun Belt regular season champion (Georgia State) and Sun Belt tournament champion (UL) lived up to expectations as the Cajuns overcame a 17-point deficit to win 84-80.
The crowd was the largest of the year, but if Lafayette is to revive its “basketball-town” reputation and give coach Bob Marlin and his team their due, that figure should be surpassed for each of the Ragin’ Cajuns’ eight remaining home games.
After seven games UL basketball attendance averages 3,670 a game, double any other Sun Belt school’s attendance. But UL’s basketball cred is not Troy’s (2nd at 1,747 a game) and certainly not Georgia Southern’s (last at 876). Most Cajun fans would say UL’s basketball heritage exceeds even Western Kentucky’s. Last year the Hilltoppers led the league in attendance at 4,715 in their final season in the Sun Belt. Cajun fans themselves have done far better in years past. This year’s average attendance is less than the average for 10 out of Marty Fletcher’s 11 seasons, less than all seven of Jessie Evans’, and even less than three out of Robert Lee’s six years as coach.
Long-time college basketball fans can be relied on to believe one thing: The game isn’t what it used to be; and then provide infinite reasons why it’s not. A partial sample follows: Players don’t develop skills because AAU programs play games rather than practice; the cream of college talent leaves early for the NBA; college coaches are defensive-minded and control freaks; scouting and defensive game plans dominate strategy; players are more athletic therefore better defenders; and finally, as always, rules and referees limit scoring opportunities. All these “reasons” (and others) can be boiled down to “players can’t shoot and nobody lets them.” As a result, the theory goes, fans don’t go to games to watch low-scoring foul fests, especially when a dozen other games are available for viewing at home.
With over 300 wins there is no doubt Bob Marlin is an excellent coach but even he was almost swept away by college basketball’s current malaise. His first season at UL ended with an 11-game winning streak that drew 6,126 a game over the final month. But the next two teams went a combined 29-36 and together averaged less than 70 points per game. Low-scoring and losing was not a good look. In 2012-13 attendance fell to 2,175 a game, the lowest in Cajundome history.
But Marlin’s disciplined system and eye for talent paid a handsome dividend just one year later: an NCAA Tournament berth. This year’s edition is better, even without NBA draft pick Elfrid Payton. Forward Shawn Long leads the Sun Belt in rebounds and blocks officially. Unofficially, at least for now, he’s the Sun Belt’s best player. Oklahoma State transfer Brian Williams brings Big 12 experience and shutdown defense. Junior college transfer Devonta Walker provides the front court presence Long missed last year. Another new addition, Jay Wright runs the point while returnee Kasey Shepherd is second in the Sun Belt in 3-point accuracy.
That’s the talent and here’s the results of Marlin’s system. With a nine-man rotation no player averages over 27 minutes a game. UL averages scoring 82.6 points/game tied with Gonzaga for 10th nationally. UL leads the Sun Belt in scoring by almost 10 points but Long, the leading scorer, ranks only 7th in the conference. Could be because four players score in double figures and four rank in the conference’s top 11 in field goal percentage. Or because UL leads the league in field goal percentage, three-point percentage, assists and defensive rebounds.
This is a good team and with three home games next week (South Alabama Saturday, ULM on Monday, and Arkansas State on Thursday) the Ragin’ Cajuns have an opportunity to make a serious run at a regular season championship. Any local basketball fan who misses the chance to see a champion must be lost somewhere in Iowa. Say hello to Bobby.