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Men's Basketball: Cajuns nearing many major goals, but No. 1 still at stake

Tim Buckley, The Advertiser, Feb. 22, 2018

Back in September, long before the 2017-18 season got underway, big man Bryce Washington sat down with UL coach Bob Marlin and laid out all that he wanted to accomplish in his senior season.

It was a lengthy list that left Marlin feeling quite assured as he bestowed leadership responsibilities on Washington and fellow seniors Johnathan Stove and Frank Bartley IV.

“I told Coach, ‘We never (before had) a chance to get 25 wins, never finished first, second or even — I think — third in the conference (in his first three years),’” Washington said.

“I told him, ‘I didn’t want to lose at home, I wanted to win 25 games at least. I wanted to win the regular season; I wanted to win the (Sun Belt Conference) Tournament.’ Those were my goals.”

All lofty, indeed.

Well, here it is not even March yet and all of those feats — and others — are well within reach.

With its 100-70 win over Texas-Arlington Saturday night, UL already has guaranteed itself a top-four seed in the March 7-11 Sun Belt Conference Tournament at New Orleans — and, consequently, a bye into quarterfinal-round play on March 9.

More: Marlin's Cajuns shoot bombs away in win over UTA

That victory also gave UL a 14-0 record at home this season with just two in the regular season remaining — March 1 against Arkansas State and March 3 against Little Rock.

The 14 wins tie the school record set when it went 14-1 in 1977-78.

Looking ahead:

A win Thursday night at Troy would guarantee UL at least a share of what would be its first Sun Belt regular-season championship since the 1999-2000 season.

A victory over Troy combined with a Georgia State loss at Texas State on Thursday would give the Cajuns the outright title, along with the No. 1 seed in the league tournament that goes along with it.

Moreover, UL’s next Sun Belt win will mark the most in school history — one more than the 13 it had in 1993-94, 1999-2000 and 2014-15.

Its next win also would be the 500th in Marlin’s career, including his time at Sam Houston State and Pensacola Junior College.

(He’s currently 499-274 in his 25th season as a head coach.)

Column: Too soon to tell if the Cajuns are Marlin's best team ever

Related: Marlin says Cajuns 'in position to make something happen'

Finally, a win Thursday night combined with one Saturday night at South Alabama would give UL 25 wins — tying the school record reached in 1970-71, 1971-72 and, most recently, in 1999-2000.

“So everything that I wanted as a goal, everything I told him,” Washington said, “is all falling into place, because he gave me that freedom to lead.”

The 25 — and, they hope, more — really is a significant number for the now 23-4 Cajuns.

“It’s been a goal of (Washington’s) for a long time,” UL coach Bob Marlin said, “and the other guys, too.”

But the bigger matter at hand for the Cajuns is making it to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2014.

This week, UL moved into second place behind No. 1 Gonzaga in CollegeInsider.com’s Mid-Major Top 25.

At the start of the week, the Cajuns also had an RPI — Rating Percentage Index, one of several tools used to pick at-large NCAA Tournament teams — of 40.

Related: Two longtime UL teammates savoring the final few days

In a conference like the Sun Belt, however, a league-tourney win is the only guaranteed path to the NCAA Tournament — even for a team with 25 or more wins.

That’s especially the case when the highest RPI of any team beaten this season is 141 — Nicholls — and only one of the four losses, to Clemson at 9, was to an opponent with an RPI better than Wyoming’s 100.

(Ole Miss is 107, Georgia State 149 and Iowa 158).

So winning the Sun Belt regular season but not the conference tournament would assure UL of an NIT  bid, but nothing more than that.

Perhaps with that in mind, Marlin said when asked, “I’m not concerned with (the RIP number). I don’t think it matters.”

“It is good, though. It’s a great RPI — the best we’ve had. And for a school our size to be in that situation, it’s pretty impressive,” the Cajuns coach added. “But the bottom line is we have to win, and continue to do what we need to do.”

Taking the No. 1 seed into the Sun Belt tournament, though, is at least a good first step toward doing just that.

Related: Marlin's Cajuns respond to late scare from Texas State

“That’s our goal, so we’re always motivated to come out and win,” Marlin said. “And we’re not concerned about what other people are doing. We can’t control that.

“We can just control how we play — and, for the most part this year, we’ve been very successful doing our thing.”

That’s just a start, though, on the road Washington envisioned so many months ago.

Being 23-4 and doing what the Cajuns have to date is somewhat satisfying, the senior said, “but it’s nothing to get riled up about, because we still haven’t done anything.”

“We still haven’t reached our one goal that we set,” Washington added. “You can check off the goals on your list, but the ultimate goal is still left for grabs, and you have to stay focused.”

Related: Cajuns scoring-leader Bartley's game all about the work

UL (23-4, 13-1 in the Sun Belt) at TROY (13-14, 7-7)

WHEN: 7:15 p.m. Thursday

WHERE: Trojan Arena; Troy, Alabama

TV: None

ONLINE: ESPN3.com

RADIO: KHXT 107.9 FM with Jay Walker

UL LEADERS: Frank Bartley IV, 17.3 points per game; JaKeenan Gant, 14.7 points, 6.2 rebounds per game and 2.5 blocks per game; Johnathan Stove, 11.1 ppg; Bryce Washington, 10.6 ppg, 10.6 rpg; Marcus Stroman, 6.4 assists per game



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