One of My Favorites – From the Bird’s Nest
The morning after Louisiana's quarterfinal loss to Georgia State in the Sun Belt Conference Tournament, I spoke with head coach Bob Marlin outside the team hotel. I asked him about post season play and he said they'd be playing in the CIT and would have a home game, probably on Wednesday.
I was excited the Cajuns would have a chance to continue their 21-12 season.
Then Sunday evening, I texted Coach Marlin again for an update and his reply was different. After conferring with Athletic Trainer B. J. Duplantis and the administration, it was determined senior guard Jay Wright and junior forward Bryce Washington were too injured to play and the Cajuns had decided to decline the bid.
Wright injured his leg in the first round game against Little Rock and, amazingly enough, scored 27 points in the loss to Georgia State. He would not have been able to play in the semifinal against Troy had the Cajuns advanced. Washington had been playing on one leg most of the second half of the season and still averaged a double double on the way to being named, along with Wright, to the All-Sun Belt second team.
The decision, obviously, was the right one.
While some extra practice time for the freshmen and at least one more game may have been beneficial. you don't play in the CIT to have more basketball practice. You play to win.
And without Washington and Wright, the Cajuns weren't going to win.
Although the decision was just, I was still disappointed there would be no more basketball for these Cajuns.
Because I absolutely loved this team.
They played hard. They played with passion. They played together. They played for each other. They played for their coaches. They played for the name across their chest. They played for fallen teammate Herman Williams.
They played for us.
The chemistry on this team was as good as any I've seen in my 25 seasons behind the mic for Cajuns' basketball.
That made them a fun team to watch.
After losing the Sun Belt Player of the Year along with four other seniors and, after seeing a couple of others decide to transfer to a lower division school, this group was left with three returning starters and a transfer who had never worn the Vermilion and White.
And five freshmen.
I really didn't have a lot of expectations for that group. I figured if they managed to play .500 ball it would be an achievement.
But this team had other ideas.
They took advantage of a favorable non conference schedule and rolled up the most non-conference victories in 26 years. They navigated the least advantageous conference schedule of any team in the league and survived a four game losing streak, rebounding to win their final six games, including wins over the league champions on senior night.
They had a winning record on the road; the first time that has happened in seventeen years.
They won twenty regular season games.
And, they did it by playing hard...in every practice. In every shootaround. In every game, home and away.
There are some fans who have tried to downplay the accomplishments of this team. They criticize everything from the schedule, to the wins, to the coaching staff to the fans who support the program.
I actually feel sorry for those folks in a way.
Because by wallowing in their own misery, they missed one enjoyable basketball season.
The Cajuns didn't win a championship. But they won games with their effort, their passion, their love for the game and their love for one another.
Senior Jay Wright had ended his college career. My guess is he'll get an opportunity to continue playing somewhere. He's earned that chance. I'll remember him as one of the fiercest competitors ever to wear a Ragin' Cajuns uniform. I'm going to miss him. His teammates will as well.
Expectations will be higher for the 2017-18 team. Three high profile transfers who began their careers at big name schools will be joining the returnees. A highly touted high school prospect will join them. The Cajuns will have senior leadership. Every team's chemistry is different and they will all need to find a way to mold themselves into a cohesive unit. But the pieces are certainly there.
But even if that team wins a championship, I don't know that they'll win my heart like this bunch did. Cajun fans should be proud of this team.
I know I am.