It shouldn’t be a surprise … even though UL’s regular basketball season ended with a thud last weekend in the Sun Belt Conference Tournament, the Ragin’ Cajun squad is still in the news.
After all, it is called March Madness, and it appears more and more likely that the Cajuns’ 2011-12 season isn’t technically over.
Sources inside the athletic department are saying that a spot in one of the pay-to-play tournaments – the CollegeInsider.com – could be locked down Sunday night after the fields for the NCAA Tournament and the NIT are announced. And if the Cajuns get into that field, they’ll likely play a first-round game at home Wednesday night.
School officials have already confirmed availability of the Cajundome and have inquired about availability of game staffers for a possible Wednesday night game (OK, full disclosure … my wife is part of that game crew and got that inquiry, so that didn’t take a lot of journalistic probing).
If it seems odd that a 16-15 Cajun squad, one that lost its first game in the Sun Belt meet for the seventh straight year, should be talking about postseason play, it is. But with the plethora of postseason tournaments out there now – there’s also the Collegiate Basketball Invitational available for teams after the NCAA and NIT picks – somebody’s got to play in them.
Continuing to play makes sense for the Cajuns, with coach Bob Marlin still retooling a program that was a postseason fixture not too long. His team was a picture of inconsistency this year, showing brief signs of brilliance sandwiched between stretches when turnovers easily outnumbered made shots.
That basketball roller coaster had to be a source of incredible frustration for Marlin, who is used to success. He was the second-winningest coach in Southland Conference history, and somehow figured out a way for a chemistry-challenged team to go on an 11-game win streak at the end of last season.
Giving Marlin's team more practice and game experience is never a bad thing, even if it’s in a tournament that most fans couldn’t pick out of a lineup.
The three previous winners of the 24-team CollegeInsider.com event – one that is played entirely on campus sites and supports itself from gate receipts from those games – include Santa Clara, Missouri State and Old Dominion.
Those might not be glamour names, but consider that the first two CollegeInsider winners went on to find more traditional postseason success. Old Dominion was snubbed by the NCAA and NIT in 2009, went on to win the CollegeInsider event and has been in the NCAA Tournament each of the past two seasons. Missouri State didn’t get into the NCAA and NIT before winning the CollegeInsider in 2010, and the next year Missouri State got an NIT bid last year and should have been in the NCAA Tournament.
That’s the kind of success that Marlin’s after. He knows the more time he can spend with his players in practices and games will help, and he dropped hints about the Cajuns’ season continuing both before and after the Sun Belt meet. “We’ve had a good season, and hopefully it’s going to continue and this won’t be the last game. We’ll see,” was his statement in a post-game press conference Sunday after UL’s gut-wrenching 65-62 loss to North Texas – a team it beat twice in the regular season.
Playing more games right now is even more valuable with the booting of J. J. Thomas and Raymone Andrews, who were given releases to take their games elsewhere this week. Both were suspended for unspecified rules violations last week and didn’t travel to the league tournament, capping a season where neither was as effective – especially Thomas, who should have been the league Freshman of the Year last season – as one year earlier.
The more chances the Cajuns have to get on the floor this year, especially with the revised roster, the more it will help next season when Marlin expects some of his recruits to have a major impact. If the CollegeInsider.com tournament fills that role, it’s a good thing … even if it’s not the NCAA or NIT.