2011 Ragin’ Cajuns Basketball Review – From the Bird’s Nest
Happy New Year everyone!
2011, like most athletic years, had its ups and downs. But it was a year where Louisiana's Ragin' Cajuns experienced more ups than downs. Over the next few days, we'll relive the seasons for basketball, baseball, softball and football. Links to blogs written during that time can be accessed by clicking the red words. We start today with men's basketball.
Bob Marlin was hired in April of 2010 and immediately endeared himself to the Cajuns fans. He had won, and won a lot at Sam Houston State. He came to town knowing plenty about the history of UL Basketball. And, he said he wanted to embrace the history of Cajuns' basketball.
What he hadn't planned to do was lose. A lot.
But that's what happened during the first two months of the season. The Cajuns entered 2011 with a 2-10 record. They lost to a non-division I school. They had lost their first conference game, to Denver, by double digits. Marlin could only hope somehow the Cajuns would find a way to get better. It did, but not right away.
On New Years' Day the Cajuns lost to preseason favorite North Texas by seventeen points. I got to see some family, including my last visit with my dad, but came home without my bags. It would be four days before I would see them. The Cajuns bounced back with a 93-91 win over Troy. Five players reached double figures in the game,. Afterward, I got a chance to have a beer and visit with Troy coach Don Maestri, one of the real gentlemen in college basketball. The Cajuns dropped the next game, however, falling to Middle Tennessee in overtime, by an identical 93-91 score. The game was marred by nearly 100 free throws shot in the game, prompting me to write my annual blog about Sun Belt officials.
The Arkansas swing followed, and although they were competitive, the Cajuns lost both, falling behind early and losing to Arkansas State 74-65 and then squandering an early lead in succumbing to UALR, 73-68. It was downright cold in Jonesboro. It was cold and rainy in Little Rock.
January was half-over. The Cajuns were 3-14. They wouldn't lose again the rest of the regular season.
A 94-62 win over Centenary in the final non-conference game of the season started it all.
Then it was time for reunion weekend.
Coach Bob Marlin had said he wanted to celebrate the past. And that weekend, the Cajuns and their fans did just that. There was a reception at the Alumni House on Friday and another at the Cajundome on Saturday. Marlin smiled. He posed for pictures. He shook hands and hugged people. But the smile covered the pain the first-year head coach was feeling.
"We were 4-14. I was embarrassed."
But you couldn't find anyone at the reunion that weekend that wasn't sold on Marlin's ability. They all believed a turnaround was coming.
They just didn't know it would be in the same season.
A Saturday night win over ULM got the Cajuns their second straight win. J. J. Thomas had 22 for the Cajuns in the victory. That capped off a very successful and very poignant weekend.
But although the Cajuns had won two in a row, it was against two bad basketball teams. If the Cajuns were going to show that a turnaround was in store, it would have to be Thursday night in the rematch with North Texas. And, in that game, the Cajuns put seven in double figures and got their revenge over the Mean Green 93-88.
The final game in January came on a Sunday afternoon in Mobile against South Alabama. The Cajuns were riding a three game winning streak, but all the wins were at home. The Cajuns, needing to show they could get something done on the road, where they hadn't won all season. The Cajuns got it done, beating the Jags in overtime, 76-70, on the anniversary of their last road win.
It was a 5-4 January for the Cajuns. But it seemed as though it was better than that.
The Cajuns carried a five game winning streak into their first game in February, at home against UALR. Over 4,000 fans were in attendance and saw a great game, which was decided on two free throws by Travis Bureau with 0.6 seconds left. The Cajuns got the hard-fought 67-66 win.
Of course, the officiating was inconsistent in that one. Which, of course, prompted another blog about officials.
Then it was back on the road. The Cajuns got by Florida International to make it six in a row, 72-68. That game was pretty much nip and tuck and the Cajuns, who hadn't shot free throws well for much of the game, made them down the stretch to get the victory.
Then it was on to Boca Raton to take on the league leading FAU Owls. And, again, the Cajuns were up to the challenge, hitting some big shots and playing great defense down the stretch to win 72-64.
It was also the night that I saw one of the most courageous performances I had ever seen. La'Ryan Gary had been playing basically on one leg all season. What he did that night prompted me to write the longest blog I had ever written. It's probably also the blog I'm most proud of.
Now the streak was at seven. And, the Cajuns would have three of their last four at home.
Arkansas State was next. The Cajuns got off to an early lead and allowed just 18 first half points. But the Red Wolves came back in the second half and actually took a brief lead. The Cajuns, however, made their final twelve free throws and got the hard-fought 64-61 win before over 5300 fans.
Next up was Western Kentucky, making a rare Cajundome appearance. Over 7000 fans were in attendance for "Fear the Beard" night. And the Cajuns made their fans happy with a 67-64 win.
Denver was next for senior night and the Cajuns' fans turned out 8000 strong. It was a game the Cajuns probably shouldn't have won, but Chris Udofia missed a point blank tip at the buzzer and the Cajuns got their tenth straight win, this one in overtime on senior night, 58-52.
The final regular season game was in Monroe against ULM. The Warhawks had a tough season, but winning was never easy up in Monroe and the 'hawks had given the Cajuns a tough game in Lafayette. But Louisiana stormed to a 61-46 win, their eleventh in a row and a share of the Sun Belt West Division championship.
The Cajuns February: 7-0.
But then it was time to head to Hot Springs for the Cajuns quarterfinal game against the winner of Western Kentucky and ULM. The Warhawks actually stayed with the Toppers until about the two minute mark before falling.
Cajuns and 'Toppers. Oh, joy.
Louisiana jumped out to a 30-19 lead, but WKU roared back. It was a nip and tuck game until the final 90 seconds, but WKU ended the Cajuns' season and their winning streak, 81-76.
After a 2-10 start, the Cajuns were 12-5 in 2011. Crowds at the 'Dome down the stretch were loud and Louisiana wound up leading the league in attendance, and averaged nearly 5,000 in conference play.
In the latter part of the year, the Cajuns would go 7-8 despite J. J. Thomas missing six games and Josh Brown missing a couple as well. The Cajuns closed 2011 the same way they had played most of the calendar year.
With a win.