Will UL Women Contend For League Title?
Will the Louisiana Ragin' Cajun women's basketball team contend for a Sun Belt Conference championship this season?
My answer would be "yes".
And why not? Louisiana, who played in the Sun Belt Conference title in in the postseason tournament, has four starters returning from last year's squad.
Now, granted, the starter that they lost was Jaylyn Gordon, one of the top ten scorers in UL women's history, but this team will be better as the season goes along, and should finish in the top four of the regular season conference standings.
The Cajuns will enter conference play on Friday at Little Rock with a 5-7 record, but that's a little misleading.
Louisiana has battled health issues all season, and will get better as they get healthier.
Let's take a look at how Louisiana has just been hammered by the injury bug.
Jasmine Thomas, a preseason third-team All-Sun Belt Conference selection, is only just returning from offseason knee surgery, appearing in only three games.
Thomas is not in basketball shape, yet, but she is a difference-maker, and will certainly make the Cajuns better as her minutes increase.
The bottom line is she's a starting point guard, who was a preseason all-league pick. There's no question UL will be better with her on the floor, as any team who was playing without their starting point guard, and a good one at that, would be.
Troi Swain, a projected starter, has been limited to five games, due to an ankle sprain, which turned into a bone bruise.
Swain is the best shooter on the team, and certainly makes them better, especially when she's in the same backcourt as Thomas.
Think about it for a second; Louisiana has not played one game with their two projected backcourt starters, Thomas and Swain, actually in the starting line-up, and neither have appeared in even half of the games.
Not many teams in college basketball, men or women, could play that many games without their starting backcourt and not struggle.
Nikia Jones, a senior who is the best passer on the team, has missed the last two games with a separated shoulder.
The Cajuns will likely have to go through the Arkansas road swing without Jones, but she'll add another dimension to the squad when she returns in 2-3 weeks.
Danyale Bayonne, who missed all but one game last season with a knee injury, will be out until at least mid-January with a meniscus injury.
Bayonne, who started 5 games this season, will provide UL with offense and versatility off the bench.
Skylar Goodwin and Ty'Reonne Doucet, two impressive freshmen, have both missed multiple games with concussions, and both continue to improve.
Goodwin leads the team in scoring, while Doucet continues to improve, as evidenced by her combined 26 points and 18 rebounds over her last two games against LSU and Alcorn St.
Finally, Simone Fields, who in all likelihood will end her career in the top ten in both scoring and rebounding in school history, has had to come off the bench in five of the 12 games, due to recovery from offseason surgery.
Fields, who has been held to a 9.3 points-per-game average, will unquestionably provide more production, now that she's getting healthy.
Needless to say, Louisiana has not been close to healthy, and yet they still went 5-7 in non-conference.
The loss to Dillard was disappointing, without question. But if you remember, the Cajuns were playing without their three top point guards, and ripe for the picking.
And of the other 5 losses, four of them were to SEC schools, including three on the road.
Are there some concerns? Sure, but there's reason to believe that this team has it's best basketball ahead of them, if healthy.
The other thing is that if you look around the conference, nobody has been incredibly impressive over the first couple of months, with South Alabama and Texas St. being the only two teams in the league that are more than two games over .500.
On the other hand, there are some teams, like Louisiana and Little Rock, who the Cajuns open league play against, that I expect to be better than their current records.
The Trojans are only 3-8, but I refuse to believe that they won't be a threat for the league title. They're a defensive-oriented team that has played a tough non-conference schedule, and I still believe they're on of the teams to beat.
I also like UTA, who features the likes of Rebekah VanDijk, the league's preseason Player of the Year, and Crystal Allen.
I'd be surprised of both Little Rock and UTA didn't finish in the top four.
If Louisiana is going to finish atop the regular season conference standings, I believe the two teams that they'll have the most trouble with are Little Rock and UTA.
After that, it's really up in the air.
South Alabama, who has one of the top players in the league, Chyna Ellis, is off to a good start, while Texas St., who is also off to a hot start, maybe has the deepest top five in the conference, with the likes of Taeler Deer, Toshua Leavitt, and Ericka May.
Meanwhile, it would not be surprising if Coastal Carolina, Arkansas St., and/or Troy turn out to be major factors.
Still, if healthy, I think Louisiana will contend for a regular season title, and a postseason tournament crown.
It's really very simple; no team has faced more adversity through their respective non-conference schedules, and no team has more upside because of it.