Men's Basketball: The world changed when season ended for Marlin and UL + photo gallery
tim Buckley, The Advertiser, March 25, 2020
On March 7, a Saturday, Bob Marlin’s Ragin’ Cajuns beat Arkansas State 73-66 in a first-round Sun Belt Conference Tournament game at the Cajundome.
It was a high note for a team that didn’t enjoy nearly as many as it wanted in the 2019-20 season.
Two nights later, in a low that went downhill from there, the week opened with an 82-81 second-round loss at Georgia Southern.
UL had blown a lead that stood at 16 points with just more than 12 minutes to go, and Mylik Wilson’s shot at a last-second reprieve missed the mark.
“We lost on Monday night in a heartbreaker by one point,” Marlin said. “Ball fell off the rim. … Then we traveled home.”
There, disappointing pivoted to bizarre.
The following morning, the Cajuns bused from Statesboro, Georgia, to Atlanta for their flight home.
Something just didn’t feel right at Hartsfield-Jackson International.
“At noon the Atlanta airport was not crowded at all,” Marlin said. “That was my first sign of realization that this thing was pretty serious.”
The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic was starting to hit America with a vengeance.
Soon, seasons for all would end. Life as we all knew it would be altered in a way no one could have imagined. Hundreds would die nationally.
The Cajuns made it through TSA checkpoints in Atlanta in record fashion, the long lines usually there trimmed by fear over flying.
The Cajuns got to New Orleans, and immediately boarded another bus for the ride to Lafayette.
That night, a recruit made an unofficial visit to campus. The next morning, Cajun coaches met as a staff. Exit interviews with players were held in the afternoon.
Marlin met with his team for about an hour and told Cajun players contact would be made again the following Monday.
Everyone needed to decompress.
On Wednesday night, however, the sports world was turned upside down.
Rudy Gobert of the Utah Jazz had tested positive for coronavirus; NBA play was suspended.
Soon, dominoes began to fall.
'THIS IS REAL LIFE'
The Sun Belt first announced that men’s and women’s semifinal and final-round basketball tournament games scheduled for that weekend in New Orleans, including one involving the women from UL and No. 1 seed Troy, would be played in front of a limited audience.
Before long, the Sun Belt and other conferences around the country had canceled their tournaments altogether. The NCAA canceled all its winter and spring sports championships. All NCAA Division I conferences eventually followed suit, ending the season not only for basketball teams but ones including UL’s baseball team and its nationally ranked softball team.
So Thursday, even though his club’s season was over anyway, Marlin held another team meeting.
And on Friday Cajun men’s basketball players, coaches and staffers gathered in the film room to watch President Donald Trump deliver his national State of Emergency address.
Marlin said players — who like all UL students now are doing their coursework online — were presented with a list of “what could take place,” told they’d be given updates and were reminded that “everything was very fluid.”
Initially, some thoughts were narrow in focus.
“The basketball season had ended for us,” Marlin said, “but I had a lot of friends who had had great years and great players who were looking forward to playing in the NCAA Tournament.”
Soon, though, the gravity of it all hit.
The upshot of Marlin’s message: At this point, the situation had become much bigger than basketball.
“Just like we told the players on Friday, ‘This is real life,’” Marlin said a few days later.
“It’s more important than basketball, and it shows what a small world that we really do live in when something affects us globally.
“So this a chance,” he also told his Cajuns, “to be a part of the solution and to learn from this.”
'EVERY TIME WE ADJUSTED'
To Marlin, the response needed — smart decision-making and adherence to social distancing recommendations so the virus’s spread could be mitigated, responding to adversity, overcoming the academic and physical-training challenges that would follow — was a microcosm of what his team had been doing all season.
Before the Cajuns played their second game, two of them — juco-transfer Durey Cadwell and freshman Javonne Lowery — were out with season-ending knee injuries. A third, freshman starter Kobe Julien, soon would follow.
All season, players were in and out of the lineup for a variety reasons.
“We started without Tirus Smith (medical matter) and without (suspended) P.J. Hardy and without (injured) Trajan Wesley for a couple games,” Marlin said.
“Then the first game we lose Javonne Lowery. We lose Kobe. … It was one thing after another.
“Then we lose Trajan again. We lose P.J. for a stretch for an ankle (sprain), and we lose Trajan for 11 games (with a concussion. We lose Mylik (Wilson) for four (with a knee injury), we lose Cedric (Russell) for one,” Marlin added. “Then we wind up losing Tirus (Smith, with a season-ending suspension.”
That’s not even the whole list.
Yet the Cajuns, their final-game collapse notwithstanding, fought until the end.
They had started 5-3 before losing Julien in an early December loss at Arizona State, the beginning of an 0-6 stretch. Early in January, Wilson dropped 30 points in a win at Appalachian State. But he missed the next four games, and UL — with Wesley out at the same time, and the others already done — went 0-4 in that span.
But Wilson returned for a late January home win over UL Monroe, and the Cajuns wound up winning 3-of-4. They closed with victories in three of their last five regular-season games, then got that tourney win over Arkansas State.
“Every time we adjusted and gave ourselves a chance to win when we had multiple guards that were able to play,” Marlin said.
“And, outside of a four-game stretch in the middle of the season when I didn’t feel like we could be competitive and lost a couple home games we shouldn’t have lost — that was right after Mylik (Wilson) got 30 at App State — I thought we played really well to end the season.
“And we lost a couple games we could have won. I mean, we had South Alabama on the ropes,” he added. “And the Monroe game (there) was tied with a minute to go; they hit a shot, we missed, that’s really the difference in the game.”
'WE GREW AS A TEAM'
Late in the schedule, UL beat Arkansas State twice in an 11-day span. It scored 69 points in the second half of a 108-101 regular season-ending win over Coastal Carolina at the Cajundome.
Then it was up big at Georgia Southern, after playing what Marlin called its “best second half of the year” but before things fell apart.
As he looked back, Marlin focused on the positives for a club that had to constantly alter its style of play depending on who was or was not available.
His 14-19 team finished with five double-digit scorers, topped by returnees Jalen Johnson (15.5 points per game), Russell (14.4) and Julien (12.8)
Johnson averaged a team-high 6.6 rebounds per game and Dou Gueye 6.2, with Gueye — also slated to return — pulling down 11 or more boards in three of his last four games.
Wilson averaged 11.5 points, 4.6 rebounds out of his guard spot, 2.9 assists, 2.3 steals and 0.6 blocks per game while winning Sun Belt Freshman of the Year honors.
“So I was proud of what we accomplished,” Marlin said, “and disappointed with the injuries.
“I never had anything like that happen before. But I felt like we grew as a team, and got somewhat better down the stretch. And if we would have won that game and gone to Atlanta …”
Had UL won at Georgia Southern, it would have faced Georgia State in a quarterfinal-round game in Atlanta — instead of just passing through the airport — with a semifinal ticket to New Orleans on the line.
But rather than stay around to play the Panthers, the Cajuns flew and bused back to a world of uncertainty.
Their season was done, but — if searching for a silver lining, as Marlin sees it — at least they didn’t wind up playing in New Orleans, where coronavirus has been spreading at an inordinately high rate with more than 500 cases and double-digit deaths.
“You know,” Marlin said, “it’s a blessing that maybe we didn’t (advance), because we got out of Georgia and went back home and then the tournament (semis) didn’t take place anyway.”