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Big Ragin’ Cajuns basketball improvement: ‘There’s no egos getting in the way’

Tim Buckley, The Advertiser, Dec. 8, 2020

Two of the first three games the UL basketball team has played this season were hastily planned.

One was a 112-82 season-opening loss in Las Vegas to No. 1 Baylor. The other was an 84-73 comeback win over LSU Shreveport, an NAIA program, in last Saturday’s home opener.

Squeezed between: the only one on UL’s original schedule, a 66-63 win last Wednesday over UNO in New Orleans.

LSU Alexandria, another NAIA team, visits the Cajundome  on Tuesday (6 p.m., KPEL 96.5 FM and 1420 AM) to face the remade Ragin’ Cajuns, a team decidedly different than last season’s 14-19 edition.

Three games in, here’s what is known about coach Bob Marlin’s Cajuns (2-1):

Rebounding is decidedly better

Adding 6-foot-11 Theo Akwuba automatically makes UL a better rebounding team. But it goes beyond that.

Three Cajuns had double-doubles against LSU-S: Akwuba (17 points, 11 boards), returning big man Dou Gueye (17, 11) and guard Mylik Wilson (14, 10).

Much of the improved rebounding came on the offensive end, where UL had 16 of  24 boards.

Bob Marlin:A look at the Ragin’ Cajuns basketball head coach

Chemistry is much different

As time dragged last season, it became apparent something was wrong. This time, even before things got going, Marlin sensed something different.

“We’ve got great chemistry,” the Cajuns coach said.

“I know. I’ve done this long enough. I can tell. This group has it. They get along well. It’s just different personalities and egos – and we don’t have the same players that we had last year. The group that we have now are all high-character young men. … I feel like that camaraderie  is gonna help as we get as some tough situations.”

Cajun players sense the same.

“One big thing I’ve seen is that everyone wants to win,” senior guard Cedric Russell said. “There’s no egos getting in the way. There’s no one here saying, ‘Oh, I have to go get X-amount of rebounds’ or ‘I’ve got to get X-amount of points.’ Everybody has bought into winning.

“I’m gonna just say it: That’s something we didn’t have last year, you know?”

UL players also have grown close quickly, not easy when COVID-19 issues make that difficult.

“We’re always hanging around with each other outside the court,” Akwuba said. “We started forming a bond early. I think that was important for our chemistry.”

Health is improved, but not much

UL had major injury issues last season.

This season hasn’t started much better, with Durey Cadwell and ex-starter Kobe Julien – both recovering from knee injuries dating a year ago – out until at least late January. Reserve point guard Trajan Wesley (foot) has not yet played this season. Marlin said Wesley’s injury appears, at least for now, to be “long-term.”

But freshman guard Michael Thomas missed only the opener due to plantar fasciitis, and Cal transfer forward Jacobi Gordon (foot/ankle) debuted against LSU-S.

With seven newcomers, including Division I transfers Akwuba, Gordon and guard Devin Butts (Mississippi State), plus juco transfer Brayan Au, who had 14 points Saturday, the Cajuns have more scoring punch than a season ago.

Akwuba was 6-of-6 from the floor against LSU-S, giving UL a bona fide inside post presence. He’s hitting 21-of-24 and averaging a team-leading 18.3 points.

Wilson, meanwhile, was one of 50 players named Monday to the Lou Henson mid-major National Player of the Year Award watch list.

“There’s no question we have more depth than we’ve had in years, back to the ’17-18 team,” Marlin said. “And we’ve got guys that put the team first. They care about winning, and they really support each other. They love the game. They’re excited about competing and putting the work, and hopefully things will go well for us (and) we can have some good fortune this year.

“I certainly know we haven’t had any the last couple years with Malik Marquetti (whose career was cut short by an ACL tear a couple seasons ago) and Kobe Julien not even being able to play a conference game. So we are looking forward to having a good season, a healthy season, and an opportunity to get to Pensacola (for the Sun Belt Conference Tournament) and compete for the NCAA bid.”

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