Men's Basketball: Too soon to tell if Cajuns are Marlin's best team ever
Tim Buckley, The Advertiser, Jan. 18, 2018
The attaboys. The shoulder slaps. The words of adulation.
Off to their best start in 45 years, UL basketball coach Bob Marlin wants his Ragin’ Cajuns — 15-3, with five straight wins — to avoid them, tune them all out.
In fact, he’s warned against the trap.
“We have talked to them about class starting, and professors and people on campus congratulating ’em and patting ’em on the back, and (that) they have to realize it’s ‘the next game,’” Marlin said.
So when Marlin, whose hot Cajuns visit Sun Belt Conference preseason favorite Texas-Arlington on Thursday night and Texas State on Saturday, was put to the test earlier this week, he kept in mind what his team’s been told.
And he passed without a sweat.
Is this, a TV reporter asked Marlin, the best team he’s ever had?
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Not going there.
Certainly not now, with the temperatures below freezing and the roads iced over in mid-January.
“No, it’s way too early to say that,” said Marlin, whose Cajuns had to bus to Arlington on Wednesday rather than fly because of the inclement weather.
“I’ve coached a national championship team,” he added, “so I don’t think we’re at that stage yet.”
Make no mistake, Marlin — who coached Pensacola Junior College to an NJCAA title in 1993 — likes this team.
Seemingly loves it, actually.
“But I’ve had some good teams,” he said after chuckling a bit over the question, “and this is a good team.”
“I like them as people; I like them as players. They’re fun to coach.”
Long before the season began, Marlin took the Cajuns on a preseason trip to Cuba.
Back in November, they played three games — winning two, including one against Iowa — at the Cayman Islands Classic.
They opened their season with a loss at now 10-8 Ole Miss, and lost Dec. 22 at now nationally ranked and 15-3 Clemson. But beyond those two, their only other defeat this season was one to now 11-7 Wyoming in the Caymans.
All of the regular-season travel in November and December, including a ride to Ruston for a win over Louisiana Tech, drew them together even more, and it wasn’t until three days around Christmas, in fact, that they had much of a break from each other’s smiling faces.
“And I was anxious to see them when (they) got back,” Marlin said.
That’s not always the case for any college basketball coach.
But it is for UL’s in 2017-18, which so far is shaping up as a dandy indeed.
Not since 1972-73 — when they opened 18-1 behind Bo Lamar and the late Roy Ebron, won an NCAA Tournament game and finished 24-5 on the court until games were vacated and a two-year death penalty imposed — have the Cajuns opened so well.
Still, Marlin doesn’t want to get ahead of anything.
Before last Saturday’s blowout win over UL Monroe, in fact, he told his team, “‘It’s not about the past … and it’s not about the future, but it’s about the precious present.’”
That space does allow room for improvement, but even when pressed Marlin suggested it’s not really anything major.
“Nothing really to fix,” he said. “We need to fine-tune a couple things.”
With that, and without offering specifics, Marlin pivoted to the positive.
It really does seem to be a special season.
On Wednesday, UL was 10th nationally in assists per game, 15th in scoring margin and 20th in scoring with a Sun Belt-high 84.9 points per game.
Yet, the real pride rests in a defense that in its last three games has held opponents to an average of 52.3 ppg — better than all but one other team in the country, Davidson.
That includes just 48 allowed in a 34-point win over ULM, including a season-opponent-low 15 in the first half.
The Warhawks shot 17-of-50 from the field — just 34 percent.
“The main thing I’m excited about: Our defense has been fantastic,” Marlin said.
“We’re defending so much better than we did early in the year. ... Our guys understand that helps us all, and helps us win, and that’s what we’re about.”
The Cajuns, granted, won’t have it easy this week.
UTA is an underachieving 12-7, but still led by longtime standouts Kevin Hervey and Erick Neal. Texas State, also 12-7, leads the Sun Belt in scoring defense at just 63.1 ppg allowed.
Both are cause for concern.
If there’s one thing Marlin isn’t worried about, though, it’s how his Cajuns have been handling things.
For that, he credits senior and junior leadership.
“I don’t think there’s any overconfidence with this group,” he said. “They know what’s at stake.”
Sun Belt regular-season and tournament championships?
An NCAA Tournament bid?
Status, dare it be suggested, as Marlin’s best team ever, even after the juco championship, even after he took Sam Houston State dancing twice and UL once with Shawn Long (now back in the G-League after playing last year in the NBA and in China) and current Orlando Magic point Elfrid Payton in 2014?
Marlin, in his eight season at UL, would only go so far as to suggest he really does think highly of this current batch, led by seniors Frank Bartley IV, Johnathan Stove and Bryce Washington, sophomore returnee Justin Miller and junior transfers Marcus Stroman, JaKeenan Gant and Malik Marquetti.
But surely you get the idea.
“They’re important to me, and I like ’em a lot, and I think they’re playing really good basketball right now,” Marlin said. “So, I hope that continues — and we’ll re-evaluate this question at the end of the year.”
UL (15-3, 5-0 in the Sun Belt) at TEXAS-ARLINGTON (12-7, 3-3)
WHEN: 7:15 p.m. Saturday
WHERE: College Park Center; Arlington, Texas
INTERNET: ESPN3 with Pete Stein (play-by-play) and Robert Gill (color)
RADIO: KHXT 107.9 FM, KPEL 1420 AM with Jay Walker
UL LEADERS: Frank Bartley IV, 16.1 points per game; JaKeenan Gant, 15.6 points, 6.8 rebounds per game and 2.2 blocks per game; Bryce Washington, 10.5 ppg, 10.5 rpg; Johnathan Stove, 10.2 ppg; Marcus Stroman, 6.1 assists per game