It took almost a month, and even then it took a website not affiliated with the Sun Belt Conference to make up for the oversight.
Earlier this week, CollegeInsider.com announced its picks for top honors in men’s basketball for the Sun Belt, and they didn’t look anything like the all-league team announced by the conference office at the start of last month’s league tournament in Hot Springs, Ark.
In fact, the top honors from the highly respected website looked nothing like the team voted upon by coaches and a media panel at the end of the Sun Belt regular season. That’s not surprising, since the “official” league team had some true head-scratchers.
The one that most Acadiana basketball fans couldn’t figure was the Coach of the Year voting. The Sun Belt’s team gave that honor to Florida Atlantic’s Mike Jarvis, and strictly by the numbers that wasn’t a terrifically bad choice. FAU did win 21 games and the league’s regular-season title, its first ever.
But the Owls were supposed to do that well. They had 10 returnees and four starters back off a team that was the Sun Belt’s most improved one year earlier, and they played well against a solid schedule early in the season. But did nobody notice that the Owls were no better than average at the end of the season? FAU went 5-5 in its last 10 games and lost twice at home to UL and Western Kentucky — and was a rally and a last-second basket away from losing three straight at home.
The top-seeded Owls got popped by 14 points by North Texas in the league tournament quarterfinals and were embarrassed 85-62 by Miami in their NIT opener.
Compare that to your Ragin’ Cajuns, who were 3-14 in January and were suddenly 14-14 going into the league tournament. The Cajuns — picked to finish fourth in the West Division by the same coaches who voted on the postseason honors — won a share of the West title. They won 11 straight, 10 of them in Sun Belt play including road wins at South Alabama, Florida International, Florida Atlantic and UL Monroe. And except for the last of those, the ULM win that ended the regular season, all of those league wins were by single-digit margins.
Winning close indicates you’re doing things right at the end of games, and that’s where coaching shines through. Yes, players have to make plays on both ends of the floor, they have to make free throws and they have to force their opponents into mistakes while not making too many of those themselves. But having someone on the bench to keep everything on an even keel, to show a calm demeanor and to give off an aura that says, “we’re going to win, and here’s how” … that makes a huge difference.
That’s why Bob Marlin should have been the league’s Coach of the Year. His team didn’t have the gaudy record that others, including FAU had. But no team in the league was better in the final two-thirds of the conference season, and that’s where those honors should be judged.
That’s where you have to look past the numbers, and at least the folks at CollegeInsider.com had the vision to look past a 14-15 record and honor Marlin as its “Coach of the Year.”
CollegeInsider.com also rectified some other oversights when it honored Denver’s Chase Hallam as its “Most Valuable Player,” separating that from its “Player of the Year” award that went to WKU’s Steffphon Pettigrew. I’ve argued for years that, in every sport, those two terms are radically different, and it’s good to see that a respected group feels the same way.
Hallam was the heart and soul of an under-sized team that didn’t have the physical talents of many in the league, but still managed to go 9-7 in conference play including 7-1 at home while leading the West standings much of the season. He was to his team what emotional leader La’Ryan Gary was to the Cajuns, and had great numbers to boot, but the league coaches and other voters didn’t even put him on the all-league first team. Shame on them.
There were multiple players that could have been honored as Player of the Year, but Pettigrew’s pick by CollegeInsider.com was a better choice than the coaches/media panel pick of UALR’s Solomon Bozeman as the “official” Player of the Year. Bozeman did hit the league’s biggest shot this year, the 3-pointer at the buzzer that beat North Texas in the title game, but he was consistently inconsistent much of the year. UALR coach Steve Shields — one of the league’s best in getting as much out of players as possible — had him on the bench at several crucial junctures this season, and a Player of the Year should never be on the bench when a game’s on the line.
Pettigrew also gets a nod because he plays a complete game, unlike his teammate Sergio Kerusch who was also tabbed on the coaches/media panel first team. He may be one of the league’s best on offense, but defense is a foreign concept to him. In the UL-WKU game in Lafayette that the Cajuns won at the end, Kerusch wasn’t on the floor — was substituted in and out — when the Hilltoppers needed to make defensive stops. True first-team all-league players don’t have to be buzzed in and out of games in that situation.
But players’ picks are usually based on numbers, and that’s not all bad … the stats usually don’t lie. Coaches don’t have statistics except won-loss numbers, and W-L often doesn’t tell much of the story … like this year’s Cajun season. Since we in Acadiana were close to it and saw the Cajun turnaround first-hand, maybe it’s easy to develop tunnel vision ... but over the last six weeks of the season no coach in the league did what Marlin did – and it wasn’t even close.
One number doesn’t lie. The Cajuns averaged almost 6,000 fans over their final five home games, and 7,071 and 8,066 in their home finales. The next-best mark in the entire Sun Belt in February was over 2,000 fewer (5,836, Arkansas-Little Rock at Arkansas State). And even with the 3-14 start, UL’s season average of 3,919 at home was the Sun Belt’s best.
Marlin, typically, downplays the honor and preferred to talk about what the team accomplished.
“Our team finished strong to win the division after a 1-5 start,” Marlin told The Daily Advertiser
. “It was our assistant coaches and our players that made it all happen.”
Nice words, but the speaker of those words had a lot to do with that success. And it’s nice that someone finally gave him his due.