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How Louisiana has become the rage of the Sun Belt

Bob Marlin has reeled in the Ragin’ Cajuns best start in over 40 years.

NCAA Basketball: Louisiana-Lafayette at Clemson Joshua S. Kelly-USA TODAY Sports

If you’re a filmmaker hunting for material, talk to Chris Beard.

The Texas Tech coach has an idea, and it’s not about his team’s sudden ascension in the Big 12. It’s about two of his friends that have been tangling on Texas and Louisiana hardwood for decades.

“Chris has said, ‘Coach they should do a 30 for 30 on you and Danny [Kaspar] one day, on all your games,’” said eighth-year Louisiana coach Bob Marlin. “We’ve had some remarkable games.”

There have been plenty. Marlin got his Div. I head coaching start at Sam Houston State in 1998. Two years later, Kaspar took over at Southland rival Stephen F. Austin, laying the groundwork for the Lumberjacks’ meteoric mid-major rise. For 10 seasons, the two coaches jockeyed for Southland supremacy, often with high stakes on the line.

Some of those games stand out for Marlin. There was an overtime win in the 2003 league tournament championship that sent the Bearkats to their first NCAA Tournament at the Div. I level. And there was a less dramatic, 16-point win in that same setting in 2010. Marlin left for Louisiana following that season, but wasn’t separated from Kaspar for long. The Lumberjacks’ architect became head coach at Texas State a year later, renewing the series in the Sun Belt.

“They are very patient and play slow on offense to keep the score down, and we play fast. So it’s just a totally different perspective on philosophy,” Marlin said.

On the court, the latest installment of Kaspar vs. Marlin wouldn’t sniff Beard’s documentary. The Ragin’ Cajuns traveled to San Marcos on Jan. 20, forced the Bobcats into a miserable shooting night and threw in a ton of three pointers. It was a 25-point blowout that was over in the first 10 minutes.

But it was noteworthy nonetheless.

It ran Louisiana’s record to 17-3, extending a dominant start that has been the story of the Sun Belt this season. The winning has not stopped since. An 80-59 victory at Louisiana Monroe last Saturday lifted the Ragin’ Cajuns to 20-3 (10-0). It’s the program’s best start in over 40 years, and the earliest it has reached the 20-win mark.

Another transfer bonanza

So what’s the secret?

“We’re better defensively than we’ve been in the past,” Marlin said. “We’ve got more depth and size than we’ve had in the past.”

Part of that is due to a flood of high-major transfers that might have given Marlin the best scout team in the country a year ago. They’re sprinkled all over the roster, with point guard Marcus Stroman (South Carolina), wing Malik Marquetti (USC) and forward JaKeenan Gant (Missouri).

They’ve helped the Ragin’ Cajuns strangle Sun Belt competition. Louisiana has the league’s top-ranked offense and defense per KenPom since conference play began, resulting in all 10 league wins coming by double digits. Stroman is second in the conference in assists per game (5.9 APG), Gant’s athleticism has excelled in Marlin’s up-tempo offense (15.2 PPG), while Marquetti has been solid in a supporting role.

This isn’t the only time Marlin has struck gold on the transfer market. He landed senior guard Frank Bartley from BYU three years ago, who came to Lafayette having played — and scored — sparingly in Provo. He worked hard on his shooting during his transfer year, and emerged last season as a complete offensive threat that finished ninth in the league in scoring (15.2 PPG). He’s upped that this season (16.5 PPG), anchoring one of the best offenses at the mid-major level.

Two four-year players, however, have had just as much to do with Louisiana’s banner season.

A different makeup

NCAA Basketball: Louisiana-Lafayette at Georgia Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Bryce Washington is not your typical center.

Not physically, since at 6’6 he doesn’t tower over many players, even in the Sun Belt. And not when it comes to intangibles either, since Marlin calls the senior one of the best leaders he’s had in 25 years as a head coach.

“It’s unusual a little bit to have a center as your leader,” he said. “They’re just a different makeup. Most of the time your point guard is your leader. And we’ve got good leadership with Marcus Stroman at the point, but we’ve also got it on the back end with Bryce, and it’s really made a difference with our team.”

It’s something that Marlin saw in Washington when he was a junior at St. Augustine High School in New Orleans, where he was sharing the spotlight with classmate, and future Jacksonville Jaguar running back, Leonard Fournette. And it’s something that he’s cultivated during Washington’s four years as a Ragin’ Cajun.

After the 2015-16 season, Marlin sent Washington and fellow senior Johnathan Stove to New Zealand with Athletes in Action, a faith-based sports ministry organization. The pair also went to a leadership workshop put on by AIA last summer in Ohio, and Marlin said he’s seen the results.

Stove has adjusted well to a sixth man role (9.8 PPG) after spending his first three seasons as a frequent starter. For his part, Washington has been one of the Sun Belt’s most dominant big men (10.3 PPG, 10.8 RPG), closing out a tremendous career that has seen him average double figure rebounding number the past two seasons.

“He’s had an amazing four years,” Marlin said. “His rebounding is phenomenal, he’s going to wind up as the third-leading rebounder in school and Sun Belt history. He just has a nose for the ball.”

Leaving a legacy

Marlin has had just one team finish with a losing record in league play since 2005.

That season was 2012-13, where Louisiana had several key players transfer, putting the team in a difficult spot. It thrust two younger players into big roles, including then-freshman center Shawn Long, who would go on to average a double-double over his four-year career, and spent time with the Philadelphia 76ers in 2017.

The other player would also wear Jerry West on his shoulder one day.

Elfrid Payton was a lightly-recruited high school guard from just outside New Orleans that had to take an unofficial visit to Louisiana. From there, things just seemed to skyrocket.

He broke out during that 2012-13 season, rarely coming off the court and landing on the all-league first team. He’d make a more-heralded team following the season, getting a spot on Billy Donovan’s U-19 squad that would win gold in the 2013 FIBA World Championship.

NBA: Los Angeles Lakers at Orlando Magic Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Payton’s now in his fourth-year with the Orlando Magic, and Marlin recently saw him play in Houston against the Rockets.

“All he could talk about was us and how well we’ve been playing,” Marlin said. “He’s a tremendous young man with a bright future, and he’s helped our program by giving us notoriety in recruiting.”

He’s stayed involved with the program, spending time each offseason working out with the Ragin’ Cajuns. It’s an arrangement Marlin wants to keep going, and said that he’s having an NBA three-point line installed on the team’s new practice floor to keep their star coming back.

And while the NBA dream must be on every player’s mind, it’s what he left at Louisiana that the current team is chasing in the present. Payton and Long formed the core of a Ragin’ Cajun team that won 23 games and made the NCAA Tournament in 2013-14, the program’s first since 2005 — and first that hasn’t been vacated since 2000.

Like that team, Louisiana’s only path to the March spotlight is by winning the Sun Belt Tournament. Despite the 20-win surge, the Ragin’ Cajuns didn’t pick up any eye-popping non-conference wins, unlike mid-majors such as New Mexico State, Nevada or Western Kentucky.

That means that second-place Georgia State, a team on its own winning streak (nine games) that Louisiana visits on Thursday night, could stand in the way. As could experienced and dangerous Georgia Southern, or talented but disappointing-to-this-point UT Arlington. Kaspar and Texas State (7-5) make that shortlist as well.

And if that’s where this historic Louisiana run is headed, Beard’s idea may pick up a little more momentum.