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Men's Basketball: Marlin's 24-4 Cajuns respond to disrespect with victories

Tim Buckley, The Advertiser, Feb. 23, 2018

There’s nothing like a little disrespect to fan the flames.

In the case of the UL basketball team, it has sparked a bonfire.

Shortly before the 2017-18 season began, last Halloween, it was announced that Sun Belt Conferences coaches — voting in their preseason poll — had picked the Ragin’ Cajuns to finish fifth.

Never mind that UL went 21-12 in 2016-17.

Never mind that the Cajuns were returning four starters — Frank Bartley IV, Johnathan Stove, Justin Miller and Bryce Washington — from that team, losing only one starter, point guard Jay Wright.

Never mind that UL was adding three transfers from major-conference programs — point Marcus Stroman (South Carolina), swingman Malik Marquetti (Southern California) and center JaKeenan Gant (Missouri) — to the mix, and that all three have been good enough to start, relegating double-digit scorers Stove and Miller to reserve roles.

Never mind all of that.

The Cajuns were picked fifth.

More: Marlin has higher expectations for UL than fifth in SBC

Fifth.

Light the fire.

The Cajuns’ response?

“So everybody came in with a chip on their shoulder — like, ‘Yo, we’re not the No. 5 team in this conference,’” Stroman said.

It didn’t stop there, though.

UL wasn’t just talking the talk. Rather, it’s kept busy walking the walk.

Sure, there has been a stumble or two along the way. Mostly, though, it’s been one foot in front of the other on a path that could — arguably should — lead to the NCAA Tournament.

With its 81-76 win at Troy on Thursday night, the Cajuns clinched at least a share of their first Sun Belt Conference title since the 1999-2000 season — and coach Bob Marlin recorded his 500th career victory, improving to 500-274.

More: Cajuns survive test at Troy

Related: Two longtime UL teammates savoring the final few days

UL moved to 24-4 overall (one win shy of tying the school record for victories) and 14-1 in Sun Belt play (marking the most SBC wins in program history).

Now, with three regular-season games remaining — Saturday night at South Alabama, Thursday night against Arkansas State and March 3 against Little Rock — UL is one win away (or one Georgia State loss away) from winning the Sun Belt’s regular-season championship outright and claiming the No. 1 seed in next month’s conference tournament in New Orleans.

Just as the Cajuns thought they were quite capable of all along.

“We feel like we can compete with anyone in this conference,” Stroman said earlier this week, “and we felt like we’re one of the best teams in the conference.”

Certainly not fifth-best, though.

In their preseason poll, Sun Belt coaches picked defending regular-season champ Texas-Arlington No. 1 and tapped UTA’s Kevin Hervey as their Preseason Player of the Year.

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

No Cajuns were on the preseason All-Sun Belt First Team.

Current SBC rebounding-leader Washington was on the second team, and current team scoring-leader Bartley was on the third, but not a one was on the first.

After UL beat UT Arlington 100-79 last Saturday night — its second double-digit win over the Mavericks this season — Marlin said UTA coach Scott Cross told him afterward, “‘I don’t know who I’m going to vote for Player of the Year — either Washington or Bartley.’

“I thought that was a nice compliment,” Marlin said.

Cross’ Mavs, picked to win it all and recipients of nine of the 12 first-place votes in the preseason poll, are 17-12 this season and 8-8 in Sun Belt play.

Georgia State, picked second, is 20-8, 11-4. Troy, picked third after winning the 2017 Sun Belt Tournament, is 13-15, 7-8. Georgia Southern, picked fourth, is 17-11, 8-7.

Related: Cajuns nearing many major goals, but No. 1 still at stake

UL, granted, was just three points shy of Georgia State for second in the poll.

Still, the Cajuns were picked behind four others — three of which are no better than one win above .500 in league play so far this season.

They were picked fifth.

“It’s very disrespectful, to be honest,” Washington said.

“When you lose one player … and you add three that have been here (and sat out one season in accord with NCAA transfer rules), that’s a little bit of disrespect, just saying they didn’t believe that the guys on the team last year could play.”

The Cajuns, in other words, took it personal.

They didn’t rant. They didn’t rave.

They simply simmered, then boiled, and finally erupted as reflected in a record that includes non-conference losses away from home to Ole Miss, Wyoming and nationally ranked Clemson and just one in league play to Georgia State in Atlanta.

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

“We don’t get really get riled up about it,” Washington said, “but just to feel you put us fifth with the team we had coming back, just the experience that we had and everything — me and Johnathan (Stove) have been here four years, Frank (Bartley) has been here three years, JaKeenan (Gant) and everybody …”

With that, the match was struck.

Washington didn’t finish his thought so much as suggest with body language what the feeling was like.

In Twitterland shorthand, it would go down as smh.

Fifth: shaking my head.

“It’s like, ‘We’ve really got something to prove,’” Washington said, reflecting sentiments both then and now.

So maybe being selected to finish fifth was the best thing that happened to the Cajuns last fall.

The preseason poll was out on that final October day. The disrespect was done. The Jack-o’-lantern was shining bright.

The Cajuns had their motivation, and they needed nothing more than to remember the light.

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

UL (24-4, 14-1 in the Sun Belt) at SOUTH ALABAMA (14-14, 7-8)

WHEN: 7:05 p.m. Saturday

WHERE: Mitchell Center; Mobile, Alabama

TV: None

ONLINE: JagNationTV.com

RADIO: KHXT 107.9 FM with Jay Walker

UL LEADERS: Frank Bartley IV, 17.4 points per game; JaKeenan Gant, 14.9 points, 6.3 rebounds per game and 2.4 blocks per game; Johnathan Stove, 10.0 ppg; Bryce Washington, 10.5 ppg, 10.6 rpg; Marcus Stroman, 6.3 assists per game.



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