Road Trip–Arkansas: From the Bird’s Nest
I tried something new.
In this, my 20th season of covering the Cajuns on the radio, I made a road trip with the men's basketball team.
No, really. First time.
Normally, I travel independently from the team. Always have. Now, in the early years, I flew with the team and, in that regard, travelled with them.
But never, never on a drive trip. I always drove myself. I almost always stay at the same hotel with the team, but on a drive trip, that was it.
And, that includes the Arkansas swing. I would drive to Jonesboro on a Wednesday, drive over to Little Rock on Friday and drive home Sunday morning.
But this time, the trip was reversed. The team would play in Little Rock on Thursday, Jonesboro on Saturday. And, the thought of making an eight hour drive on Sunday, alone, didn't do much for me. So, I decided to ride the team bus.
That option has always been available. Coach Bob Marlin and his predecessors and baseball coach Tony Robichaux have always offered. But I've always declined. Part of the reason is I've kind of felt as though I was intruding. Part of the reason was simply self-serving. I like keeping my own schedule.
Because the team wasn't going to be able to practice at the Stephens Center (the women were playing Wednesday night and even the auxilliary court was unavailable), the team didn't leave until Wednesday afternoon. We were scheduled to leave at 3:00, but by the time practice ended at the Moncla Indoor Facility and the team showered, it was nearly four by the time we left for Little Rock. I wasn't the only "civilian" on the trip. Coach Marlin's wife, Jenny and their daughter Saylor were on the bus as well. We were on the Calco bus owned by the University. Our driver, Ray Duhon was a veteran and the plan was to stop for dinner in Shreveport.
We got to Picadilly in Shreveport after seven for dinner. I don't know why I don't eat at Picadilly more often. The food is good and it's not expensive. We were there about an hour and then it was back on the bus to finish the trip.
You might think a ride on a big bus is a comfortable one. Nope. This particular bus is pretty old and the suspension is shot. As a result it was a pretty bumpy ride. Having satellite television was a good thing. We got to see some basketball on the way up but by the time we got to Little Rock at around 11:30, we were all ready to get off the bus. We checked into the Embassy Suites (really hard to beat that chain) and got settled in. But, by the time I got unpacked and wound down from the trip, it was pretty late by the time we got to bed.
Thursday was gameday and I awoke around eight. It's pretty normal on the road that I wind up eating breakfast with the coaching staff. We talked about lots of things, including the matchup with UALR. After breakfast it was back upstairs to do some writing for the website and some game prep. I even got a brief nap in.
At 3:00, it was time for pregame meal. I don't always eat with the team, but did on this trip. Pregame meal is always pretty good. There was plenty of pasta, chicken breasts, mashed potatoes, salad and veggies. The best part for me, though is getting to watch some film as the coaches go over the scouting report with the players. Each player gets a copy of the scouting report, which goes over the opponents strengths and weaknesses, player by player. They give me a copy as well and it's very helpful in preparing for the game.
We left for the arena just after five. It was about a ten minute bus ride to the Jack Stephens Center. I really like that arena. UALR used to play at the old Barton Coliseum, which reminded me a lot of Blackham. It was on the State Fairgrounds. Then, for a few years, they played at Alltel (now Verizon) Arena, a great facility that was much too big for UALR's needs. Their crowds, which were rarely over 2000 or so, were swallowed up in that facility, which seats close to 18,000. Finally, benefactor Jack Stephens gave the University 26 million dollars for an on-campus arena the Trojans so desperately needed. They got a lot of bang for their buck. While the arena isn't fancy, it has exactly what the program needs. It seats 5,600 which is perfect. They have suites for donors and chairback seats everywhere except the end zones.
My only complaint about the arena is the vantage point. The radio crew is at the top of the first level all the way to one end. When you're used to being courtside, sitting up there takes away from the experience and, at times, keeps you uninformed if there's a controversy during the game. When we got to the arena, I went up the steps to the top of the first level and set up equipment. Then I went back down the stairs and visited with UALR Sports Information Director Joe Angolia who had my press credential. I was ready to head to the locker room to record pregame with Coach Marlin, but realized my mp3 player was at the scorer's table. So, it was back up the stairs to get it.
After recording Coach Marlin's interview, I ran into Coach Steve Shields in the arena and we chatted for a few minutes. Coach Shields is in his ninth season. His team was 5-0 and playing well. We chatted about our kids (both of us are adoptive parents) and then he left to go back to his office. I then saw another guy I wanted to visit with.
Robert Lee spent 14 years at UL, the last six as head coach. Things didn't work out for him and a coaching change was made two years ago. But even his harshest critics understand that Coach Lee is one hell of a guy and he remains well-liked by Cajuns fans. He's in his first year on Shields' staff after a year at ULM. He got up when he saw me and we hugged each other. He said the family was adjusting well to their new home. It's the first time they've ever lived outside of Louisiana. He told me his daughter Jourdan had a bit of an adjustment. She started high school this year and her school has nearly 4,000 students. But after about a month, he said, it was all good. We talked about the Cajuns' bowl win. Somehow, I believe that wherever he goes, Robert Lee will always be a Ragin' Cajun in his heart.
It was getting close to airtime so I made the third walk up the stairs to my table and finished getting ready for the broadcast. I had done all of the prep work and had the scouting report, so there wasn't much to do.
I then got treated to the best road performance in recent memory by a Cajuns basketball team.
The Cajuns held the division leaders to 25 percent shooting. Their big three scorers were held to 7-34 shooting. They made only two shots from beyond the arc. The Cajuns outrebounded them by 17. Louisiana took a 16 point lead into the locker room. But the home team usually makes things interesting in the second half and we waited for the Trojans to make a run.
It never happened. The Cajuns dominated in the second half as well and cruised to a 19 point win.
After the game, it was back on the bus for the ride back. I wasn't in my seat very long when I was handed a pizza. Everyone on the bus had one. Back in the room, I wrote up the game story for the website and ate before turning in for the night.
I didn't sleep very well, probably because I ate so late. I was up before seven and went downstairs and drank coffee and read the paper. Coach Kevin Johnson joined me pretty early and the rest of the staff followed later. The team was getting together after breakfast to watch video of last night's game. Departure time was going to be 12:30, which gave me plenty of time to go upstairs, make a post on the website and shower and pack.
I didn't see Coach Marlin at breakfast, but got a chance to talk with him before we left for Jonesboro. He was, as you might expect, pretty pleased with the team's performance. Raymone Andrews played only eleven minutes after injuring his hip against FIU, but the rest of the team stepped up. Just about everyone had a contribution to the win and Coach Marlin likes it that way.
We stopped for lunch before getting on the road for the two hour ride to Jonesboro. We checked into the Hilton Garden Inn around 3:30. The team was going to head to practice right away and I went upstairs to the room and looked up some things on the computer. At about 7:15 I went downstairs to grab some dinner. One of the things that would be considered a down side to riding with the team is the lack of mobility once you get to the hotel. It would be a pretty good walk to get to a restaurant so I decided to just eat at the hotel. But when I got downstairs the coaching staff was in the lobby. I asked assistant coach Neil Hardin where the team had eaten and he said they hadn't. They were getting ready to go to O'Charleys for dinner. Perfect timing. It was back on the bus.
When we got to the restaurant, it was packed. Jonesboro is technically in a dry county, but in the last year or two, most of the restaurants have started serving alcohol. (You still can't buy it in stores, though.) But it's kind of strange, in that most restaurants are divided. Remember when the waitress would ask "Smoking or non-smoking?" Here it's "drinking or non-drinking." We had made reservations and our tables were ready so we didn't have to wait. As we walked to our tables, we heard "GEAUX CAJUNS!!!" There was a woman seated with her party near us and, as it turned out, she's originally from Ascension Parish but has some ties to UL through relatives. Tara Babin lives in Jonesboro and was really excited to see home folks. She posed for pictures with some of the players.
I suggested to Brock Morris, director of basketball operations, that he invite her to be at the game. The team gets a certain number of complimentary tickets to road games and there would be plenty left over. And, he thought it was a great idea. He asked if she was going to the game and she said yes, and was bringing her family. There would be six in all. Brock told her he would have tickets for her at will call and that made her night. She made sure she posed in front of the team bus for pictures when we left.
At dinner, I sat with our bus driver, Ray, along with trainer B. J. Duplantis and coach Nikita Johnson. Nikita is really an interesting guy. He's lived in a lot of places and there's more to him than basketball. His favorite tv channel is Turner Classic Movies. He loves old black and white movies and 60's TV shows. He's made a road trip with DVD's from the old "Rat Patrol" series. I think he and I were the only ones who remember that show. Nikita also told the story about the night he saw a ghost. I'll save that for a live interview one day.
Gameday was pretty much the same as it was in Little Rock. But something a little strange happened. My phone rang around 12:30. The lady at the front desk wanted to know who I was since they had no record of anyone being in my room. I told her and she thanked me. But that had never happened before.
Since we were leaving right after the game to head home, I went to the front desk to check out about twenty minutes before departure. (The team makes my reservations, but I pay my charges separately.) The lady, once again, had no record of me. She asked if I had put down a credit card and I said yes. She asked for the card and put in the number and my name came up. But there was no room assignment. She looked at me and said "Congratulations, you got a free night. There's no charge."
The way things were going, all I needed to make it a perfect trip was a win at the Convocation Center.
It was the 21st time the Cajuns and ASU had met at that arena, and it was the 19th game I had done from there. I went through the usual pregame routine, including a visit with ASU play-by-play man Matt Stoltz. He told me about his whirlwind around the godaddy.com bowl. ASU had a basketball game on Saturday night, which he did. He then had a private plane fly him to Mobile for the game. He said he got to the stadium about three hours before gametime and then flew back on Monday morning for a basketball game against FAU on Monday night. Not exactly what you'd call a bowl experience.
The Cajuns came out blazing against Arkansas State, but I didn't feel great about it at halftime. In fact, I said before the second half began the Cajuns probably wouldn't shoot 59 percent in the second half, nor would they have only three turnovers. Those were the first half numbers. I felt if the Cajuns were going to win they'd have to do some things better, especially in rebounding. As good as they were against UALR, they were that bad against ASU. And, if they didn't rebound better, they'd be in trouble.
I was a prophet. The Cajuns didn't shoot nearly as well and they turned it over eleven times in the second half. And, the rebounding woes continued which gave the Red Wolves too many second chances. The Cajuns were outscored by fifteen in the second half and took a crushing 79-74 loss. Despite a good offensive night, Kadeem Coleby didn't have a single defensive rebound in the game. And, seniors Josh Brown and Darshawn McClellan, who combined for 51 points in the win against FIU a week ago, combined for exactly two points in the second half against ASU.
Bob Marlin was about as frustrated as I've seen him after the game. Only one other time have I seen him visibly upset after a loss, and that was at Houston a year ago. He kept things even keel during our post-game interview but I could tell he was about to spit nails.
After the broadcast I changed clothes and got on the bus for the long drive home. There was food waiting for me on my seat, but I didn't have much of an appetite. This one hurt. A lot.
Sleep didn't come for the first half of the trip, although I tried. The frustration of the missed opportunity, combined with the bumpy ride, kept me awake. Ray stopped for gas just past Jackson and I got off the bus. I visited with Coach Marlin and he was still pretty frustrated. He's used to winning, and winning a lot. The Cajuns are two games below .500 after a year and a half and he's not liking it much. I think he believed the program would be a little farther along even though he knew it would take some time.
But the most frustrating thing for him is the Cajuns have given away two games in league play he felt they should have won. The Cajuns won't get those games back.
Back on the bus, I finally dozed fitfully the rest of the way home.
I got back to my house at 6:30am and then, finally, got some sleep.
I'll probably ride with the team again when we go to Troy. That is, provided I'm not considered to be bad luck.