For Cajuns round-ball, where's the love?

by Dan McDonald

The Ragin' Cajun basketball team has played the four most exciting home games of any stretch in recent history, and the fan response has been an overwhelming ho-hum.

Where is everybody?

The Ragin' Cajun basketball team has played the four most exciting home games of any stretch in recent history, and the fan response has been an overwhelming ho-hum.

That's just by the numbers, of course. The support group (it's difficult to call Cajun basketball attendance a crowd right now) that has come out to the Cajundome has been loud and fervent and loyal, and they've been treated to:

* An overtime win over Florida International when UL had to rally from behind in the extra period;

* A two-point win over previous Sun Belt West leader North Texas, in which the Mean Green had three three-point attempts for a win in the final 12 seconds;

* An overtime win over then-West-leading Denver, when a Cajun steal with six seconds left set up Elfrid Payton's winning free throw with 0.4 seconds showing; and

* An overtime loss Thursday night to West-leading Arkansas-Little Rock when the Cajuns led by four points with the chance to push it to six with two free throws with less than 20 seconds left in regulation.

In between those four games, the Cajuns won three of four road games something that doesn't happen a lot in the balanced Sun Belt and went into Thursday's game with a chance to take sole possession of first place in their division.

That didn't happen. UALR, with former Cajun coach Robert Lee on the bench as an assistant, survived in a heart-stopping 72-70 victory to get revenge for a 19-point beatdown the Cajuns handed the Trojans three weeks ago in Little Rock.

Thursday's game drew 4,125, filling up about one-third of the Dome capacity, and that was the largest home crowd for the Cajuns this season.

Where'd everybody go? The Cajuns averaged almost 4,000 fans per home game last year, and over 6,100 in February games. Sure, it helped that UL was on a season-ending win streak for the ages last season, winning its last 11 games including 10 conference outings, but the Cajuns needed that streak just to get back to .500, and a first-round loss in the league tournament left them at 14-15.

This year, the Cajuns didn't have to rally from as far back, and took a 14-11 record into Thursday's game. UL was also 8-3 in Sun Belt play prior to the loss to UALR. That was their best mark through 11 league games since 2004-05 which happens to be the last time the Cajuns played in the NCAA Tournament.

Want more success? The Cajuns hadn't lost at home to a Sun Belt West team in over two seasons before Thursday night. Since Bob Marlin took over as head coach, UL is 19-9 in league play both home and road 18-4 over the last 22 conference games.

And with those figures, the Cajuns haven't drawn as many fans this season as Middle Tennessee, Western Kentucky (8-16 and on its second coach this year), North Texas and Denver. Yes, Denver a school with almost zero basketball tradition and one that's leaving the Sun Belt after this year is outdrawing UL by nearly 2,000 fans a night.

Where's the support that drove the football program to such heights? UL had a perfect 5-0 season at Cajun Field, and it didn't hurt that over 29,000 on average the nation's biggest attendance increase from the previous year turned out for each and every home game. The Cajuns never drew fewer than 28,000 fans for any game.

Now, only around 12 percent of that number can bother to come out to the Dome, to see a team that's specializing in thrillers? If a couple thousand more had been there Thursday only enough to match last year's February average who's to say that may not have turned into a win, and UL might be on its way to a matching season-ending streak?

For a fan base that prides itself on "basketball tradition," you're certainly not showing it.