A Magical Year
● Published by Robert Frey
Ragin’ Cajuns Men’s BasketballBy Scott Brazda / Photos by Brad Kemp
We knew they’d be pretty good, but great was never part of the pre-season conversation. The 2017-18 edition of the Ragin’ Cajuns Men’s Basketball Team rewrote the record books, beginning with number of wins in a single season.
But who knew? What were the expectations of coaches, players and local media?
FRANK BARTLEY, RAGIN’ CAJUNS: “We knew we were gonna’ be good and nobody here ever doubted this team. The biggest thing was being together and being consistent over the course of the season.”
BRYCE WASHINGTON, RAGIN’ CAJUNS: “I thought we were going to be the best team in the conference. But actually, I thought we’d win a few more games than we did.”
MIKE MURPHY, RAGIN’ CAJUNS ASSISTANT: “You’re one team in October, you’re another team in November, you’re a different team in December, and all that’s predicted by who you’re playing and what you’re doing. Did I see this many wins coming? No. Did I think the potential was there? Absolutely.”
The seeds for what was to come were actually laid in the season before. That team finished 21-12, but there were three experienced bench players who had to sit out the year and would soon make their collective presence known. That trio had transferred from big schools: South Carolina, Missouri and USC.
TIM BUCKLEY, LAFAYETTE DAILY ADVERTISER: “It was what most people did not see that offered the biggest hints as to what the Cajuns were capable of this season. With major college transfers Marcus Stroman, JaKeenan Gant and Malik Marquetti, UL likes to say it might have had the best scout team in America. And it could be true.”
JAY WALKER, RAGIN’ CAJUNS PLAY-BY-PLAY ANNOUNCER: “Last year’s team had just one senior, albeit a very good one (Jay Wright). They were one win away from getting a bye in the conference tournament. And Coach Marlin said the transfers sitting out were challenging those guys in practice every day and making them better.”
The work paid off. The Cajuns played in Cuba during the late summer, then started the season with a loss at Ole Miss, then won two out of three in the Cayman Islands, grabbing victories over Iowa and Richmond. Returning home, Louisiana beat longtime rival Louisiana Tech and then opened conference play by topping Appalachian State. Coach Bob Marlin’s team soon learned what separated a good team from a great one.
BOB MARLIN, RAGIN’ CAJUNS COACH: “Then we came up and just played tremendous against App State at the Dome, with excellent defense. Then we beat Monroe and Coastal Carolina at home, and we did it all with suffocating defense. We’re a good rebounding team and we can score, but we needed to make sure we could defend, and our defense got up to championship level.”
As Marlin’s team began to buy in, they also began to dominate their opponents.
MARLIN: “Then we started winning each game by double figures. We started to realize, ‘Hey, we can get the school record’. Bryce sat right there on that couch and said, “We’re gonna’ win 25, Coach, we’re gonna win 25’. I told him I just wanted to keep the losses in single digits, because if you do that, the wins are going to take care of themselves.”
Playing well for a while is one thing; running through the Sun Belt Conference schedule with only two losses is quite another. Over the years, Marlin and his staff had seen more than a number of highs and lows. Murphy credits Marlin with keeping his players focused on the here-and-now through the course of a six-month season.
MURPHY: It’s very hard to focus on the present because everyone is always asking you questions about the future. I think what Coach does is a really, really good job of getting everyone – coaches, players, staff, everyone associated with the program – to live in the present.
The only thing you can control is what you’re going to do today, and I think that’s been our battle cry all year.”
Staying away from the past and future served the team well, as did a collective realization of the intangibles that are necessary for any entity to become dominant. Credit members of the senior class for putting a vermilion and white stamp on the word ‘leadership’.
WASHINGTON: “My job on this team is to lead. Not to score, but to rebound and lead. We’ve had a great record, so I guess I’ve done pretty good.”
BARTLEY: “We lead in practice, we lead in games and Coach Marlin’s sitting there, directing us. He tells us what to do, then we tell the rest of the team what to do, and we just go about our business that way.”
BUCKLEY: “Bryce Washington, Johnathan Stove and Frank Bartley are all class acts; the trio is a huge reason as to why these Cajuns were so successful.”
WALKER: “Best senior leadership I’ve seen in 26-years of covering Cajuns’ basketball. Period.”
One pass, three passes, six passes, eight passes. Fact: The Ragin’ Cajuns finished eighth in the nation in assists. Pretty much anyone who watched this year’s squad play was no doubt impressed, at times probably amazed, by the unselfishness displayed when the team had the ball.
BUCKLEY: “It may be the biggest reason UL is the Sun Belt’s regular-season champ.”
MARLIN: “There are several possessions where everyone touches the basketball. They even do it at shooting practice; instead of laying it in, they make the extra pass, let everybody get a touch, which is pretty amazing.”
WASHINGTON: “The only thing we care about is if we win or if we lose. We all had a meeting earlier in the year, saying whoever’s hot, let’s get him the ball and keep it going ‘til they can’t go no more. We really don’t care who drives the bus. We win and everybody eats. It’s that simple.”
If there was a knock against this team, it was about the schedule. While there’s nothing Marlin could have done about his Sun Belt opponents, critics say the non-conference slate & it’s poorly-rated strength of schedule is why Louisiana—despite having over 25 wins and only single-digit losses-- was not chosen to attend the NCAA’s Big Dance, and instead was an NIT selection.
MARLIN: “We’d love to play all of the other schools in the state, but there two schools along I-10 (LSU and Tulane) who won’t even call us back.
You can quote me on this: We’ll play anybody, anytime, anywhere.
But people won’t play. We played an SEC team, we played a Big Ten team, we played an ACC team and we played people who come to the CajunDome. No one wants to come to the CajunDome.”
WALKER: “The schedule is what it is. Richmond was an NIT quarterfinalist last year and was supposed to be really good; Iowa was picked fifth in the Big Ten, but suffered a big injury to its point guard. The schedule, on paper, was pretty good. It didn’t turn out that way.”
The elements for success—leadership, unselfishness, and most certainly talent—have been listed above. But what’s that one ingredient necessary for any team to have this kind of magical season? In other words, what made this season’s Ragin’ Cajuns a team for the ages?
MURPHY: “Well, in order to have to have the type of year we’re having, everybody’s got to be all in, every body’s got to accept their roles—that’s the most important thing, everybody’s got to accept their roles. We’re fortunate that we have a group of guys who do that.”
MARLIN: “We share the basketball, and we play a brand that’s fun to watch. That’s the biggest compliment to me, when I’m out of town and people say to me, ‘I love the way your team plays; they share the basketball’. That makes me feel like a proud dad.”
BARTLEY: “We’re all together with the same goal, trying to win. We don’t have any bad apples on this team, we don’t have any cancers on this team. We understand; we’ve got the same dream and that’s to win, that’s to get that ring. We all wanted the same thing.”