Men's Basketball: Coronavirus impacts Cajuns' basketball scheduling plans
Tim Buckley, The Advertiser, April 29, 2020
Fewer long road trips that require a flight. More regional opponents.
Multiple games against the same Sun Belt Conference opponent, or opponents, perhaps as many as four during the regular season alone.
Those are just some of the possibilities when — and if — the 2020-21 college basketball season gets under way.
UL coach Bob Marlin, for one, seems fine with all of it.
“This is a one-year event, hopefully, that we’re making some concessions to,” Marlin said in a recent Zoom teleconference. “And we’ll get a competitive schedule.”
The changes — some proposed, some already in place — are largely cost-cutting measures being considered, or made, as a concession to the coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis wreaking havoc on the country.
UL's Bob Marlin, shown here coaching against Arkansas State in February at the Cajundome, hopes scheduling is headed in more of a regional direction going forward. (Photo: James Mays/Special to the Advertiser)
The pandemic is responsible for costing college athletic departments nationwide millions of dollars in projected added expenses, some of them to afford the price of scholarships for spring-sports seniors who will return in 2021 because their seasons were cut short, and/or lost income.
Marlin gave a sampling of the Ragin’ Cajuns’ non-conference plans when he spoke with media members.
UL, he said, is scheduled to open its season on the road at Texas.
The Longhorns went 19-12 last season including five straight wins before a season-ending loss to Oklahoma State, and before what was to have been their first Big 12 Tournament game was canceled due to the pandemic.
The Cajuns also will visit Houston, a game scheduled in lieu of a canceled trip that would have required a plane ride elsewhere.
Marlin thanked Cougars coach Kelvin Sampson for helping to accommodate the late change.
Houston was 23-8 in the 2019-20 season, and the American Athletic Conference’s regular-season champs were destined for the canceled NCAA Tournament.
Marlin also said UL will travel next season to Southern Mississippi, which finished 9-22 in 2019-20.
According to a contract seen by The Daily Advertiser, the game is scheduled for Nov. 17 and it will be the first in a four-game series with the Golden Eagles that also includes games at the Cajundome in the 2021-22 and 2023-24 seasons.
UL has played 56 prior games against Southern Miss, but none since the 2009-10 season — the last before Marlin succeeded Robert Lee as coach of the Cajuns.
Additionally, Marlin said UL next season will resume play against former Sun Belt member University of New Orleans of the Southland Conference — a 72-game series that began in 1971, but that went on hiatus in 2019 after games in four straight years from 2015-18.
For Marlin, the effect of having to schedule that way makes sense.
“We try to play regional basketball and teams that our fans are aware of, whether it’s in-state or in the region, since I became the coach here,” he said.
But there have been several exceptions to that along with the way, sometimes necessitated because the Cajuns — like many programs their size — frequently have trouble drawing non-conference peer opponents to their home floor.
Take the 2011-12 season, for instance.
In late January the Cajuns played back-to-back non-conference games at Duquesne, located in Pittsburgh, and at Kent State, located in Ohio.
Less than a month later, they went all the way back to Pittsburgh — more than 1,200 miles away — to play Robert Morris.
“It didn’t make sense,” Marlin said.
“So we started playing more Louisiana and more local schools, provided they would play. Some don’t want to play.”
That includes LSU.
So since that 2011-12 season, UL has had to travel far to play many of its non-conference games.
Sometimes, like when it’s against a nationally ranked opponent that would help toughen the Cajuns for league play, or give them a good paycheck — for example, games at then-No. 6 Tennessee and then-No. 1 Kansas in November 2018 — or when it’s to a locale for a tournament involving multiple opponents, it does make sense.
“Every program has to do what’s right,” Marlin said.
“But I do think that the regional aspect of scheduling will come back somewhat, just because of finances and the rivalries. It makes perfect sense to do that.
“Bryan (Maggard, UL’s athletic director) and I have talked, along with Mike Murphy (the UL basketball operations director who handles scheduling for the Cajuns), quite extensively,” Marlin added, “about trying to get more involvement from local schools, whether in Texas or Mississippi.”
Or right at home in Louisiana.
In the 2020-21 season, in fact, UL also is scheduled to play host to Louisiana Tech, one of the few in-state programs willing to travel to play the Cajuns in a home-and-home series.
“We’re trying to keep that going,” Marlin said of more regional games, “and hopefully more people will be apt to play locally.”
As for how the Sun Belt portion of the season shakes out, much is uncertain.
Marlin had said he hoped for a decision “on what’s going to happen … and how it will play out” sometime last week.
But the conference has not yet announced its plans, and according to a UL source “there are no impending schedule structure-related announcements coming from the Sun Belt” this week.
“Conversation is happening” and scenarios are being discussed, Sun Belt spokesman Scottie Rodgers said Wednesday.
“We’re looking at cost-cutting measures there, for sure, across the board as a conference,” Marlin said.
Earlier this month, the Cajuns coach said, he and Maggard spoke “about trying to eliminate some of the outer footprint if we could; cut back on flight trips, across the board.”
It could even mean not flying to play some league opponents the Cajuns typically would, such as Appalachian State in North Carolina and Coastal Carolina in South Carolina, and others around the conference trimming their air travel to save money as well.
That affects Sun Belt schools including Coastal and App State, Marlin said, “really, more than it does us.”
“But it’s going to make it difficult to have a totally balanced schedule,” he said.
“We talked about going to divisions, like we used to, and play 16 games (instead of 18). But that’s not really the answer, either.”
One option discussed by conference coaches and athletic directors involves playing geographically close rivals — UL Monroe, in UL’s case — multiple times.
Others such rival matchups: Texas State and Texas-Arlington, Arkansas State and Little Rock, South Alabama and Troy, Coastal and App, and Georgia State and Georgia Southern.
“There was one scenario where we could wind up playing Monroe four times, and some of the other schools would do the same,” Marlin said.
Some Sun Belt coaches approved, according to Marlin.
But some evidently are not.
“Keith (Richard, ULM’s head coach) was for it at Monroe,” Marlin said. “There were a couple schools that were against it. So we’ll have to wait and see what the commissioner (Keith Gill) says.”
Marlin’s stance on the proposal?
“It doesn’t bother me,” he said.
“We were against it with the pod system we didn’t (implement), where you could possibly play someone four or five times throughout the school year if you played them in the (conference) tournament. We didn’t like that.
“But with the way it’s (potentially) set up now,” he added, “I don’t really have an issue with it.”
When preparation for the season can resume, meanwhile, remains uncertain as well.
Louisiana residents currently remain under statewide stay-at-home orders through May 15 at the earliest.
As for a return to campus for workouts, Marlin said the Cajuns are “looking at possibly being here in July; if not, then in August.”
But that all depends largely on what the virus permits.
All the Cajuns can be certain of now, then, is that if the season does take place, all Sun Belt teams — unlike what was planned this year in New Orleans — are scheduled to take part in the conference tourney at its new home in Pensacola, Florida.
“So we’ll be excited,” Marlin said, “when that time comes.”