After an incident involving a telephone that received a call and took a message, but never rang nor played a message, I was finally able to sit down with University of Louisiana-Lafayette men's basketball head coach Bob Marlin and talk about the upcoming season.
One of the first things I noticed in reviewing his first two squads at ULL (Marlin is entering his third season after 12 very successful years at Sam Houston State), was a very large roster turnover that wasn't entirely due to graduation. So, I started there.
Mid-Major Madness: I saw that there were a number of players from last year's roster that simply don't appear this year. What happened with all of the players from last year who didn't graduate; Kentawn Smith, Raymone Andrews, J.J. Thomas, Kadeem Coleby, and Darnell Jackson?
Coach Marlin: They all left for different reasons. Raymone Andrews had been suspended three times and decided to leave. J.J. Thomas had also been suspended and came to the decision to leave (transferred to Cal State Northridge).
Darnell Jackson decided that he didn't like playing behind a freshman. Kentawn Smith and Kadeem Coleby decided to leave after a change we made with our assistant coaches (Coleby transferred to Wichita State).
That roster turnover really changed things - I thought we were going to be a very strong team down low this season, but now we're exactly the opposite. Shawn Long was a redshirt transfer last season (from Mississippi State) and with his size - he's 6'9" and about 245 - we're hoping he can get some play down low.
It definitely means that the freshmen we brought in this year who we had hoped to bring along a little slower will wind up getting more minutes much sooner.
MMM: Does that sudden shift in your makeup and experience change your expectations for this season?
CM: No, that doesn't really change our expectations for this season, we still expect to be one of the better teams in the conference. This new style may wind up being a good change when all is said and done.
MMM: How do you see the few returning players fitting in this coming season? Will they see any change in their role with the team, or just an increase in playing time?
CM: (Sophomore point guard) Elfrid (Payton) actually played quite a bit last season, and I'll really be looking at him and (junior forward) Bryant (Mbamalu) as well as the other returnees to score more - if you look at last year's numbers, we've only got about 18 points and 8 rebounds per game returning, so that has to improve.
Elfrid will shoot the three pointers better this season - he only attempted eight last season. We actually had him go out and get an eye exam and it turned out he needed contacts, so we'll probably be teasing him about that a lot. We were also last in the conference in both free throw percentage and turnovers, so that will need to improve.
I also think Alan-Michael Thompson will improve this season. He had last year what happens to a lot of junior college players, where it's a lot more difficult at the Division I level than they anticipate. He spent the first semester finishing up his degree back in North Carolina, and to be honest he wasn't really fitting in like he should on the team.
Eventually he bought in and started to really defend, and he had a much better second semester including a breakout game (Jan 19th against UALR) where he shot great and put in 14 points for us. I'm not saying he'll do that nightly for us this year, but he really worked hard as our only senior this season and I think you'll see that happen more often than not.
MMM: According to Ken Pomeroy, based on your offensive and defensive production last season your team wound up finishing 4-5 wins above where you were projected (.369 win pct.); do you feel like your squad overachieved this past season?
CM: I definitely think that we overachieved at times, but when you look at the end of last season in the (conference) tournament, we wound up losing our last three. Credit to Louisiana-Monroe for playing hard, but we led that one at the half and probably should have won.
Then we had the lead with a couple minutes left against North Texas and lost by three, and then came back home in the CIT and fell to Rice in another close one. Add in the loss (Feb 9th in OT) to Little Rock and we may wind up finishing with 19 or 20 wins.
There is such parity in our league, and coaches like Kermit (Davis at MTSU) have a very strong history built up, but I expect us to be up at the top as well.
MMM: Speaking of that North Texas game, is there anything in particular that made the difference between beating them twice and then losing the third time?
CM: Well, I think it's difficult to defeat any team three times, but we had the lead (62-60) with a couple minutes left and Brandan Walton just made a great shot to win it. North Texas is a very strong team, and you know what a great player Tony Mitchell is - we did a great job with him when you consider that in the three games they played against us, he totaled eleven, seven and five points.
Things like that happen largely because the staff does a great job scouting and adjusting in game. You have to have some things go your way, but it has always made sense to me to try and limit a team's star player and make somebody else beat you.
I followed Hubie Brown back when he was coaching the (Atlanta) Hawks and I believe in his star system - he always said that if you try and "let the star get theirs" and have them score 30, you never know when they get on a roll and before you know it, they have 60.
MMM: Do you teach against that on offense as well? Having a balanced attack so that shutting down one star player doesn't ruin the whole game plan?
CM: We've actually joked about that before. We've said that it can be a benefit to play an "equal opportunity" offense because the defense never knows where the points are going to come from and can't game plan accordingly. The problem is that, when you play that style, some nights you don't know where the points are coming from either.
We try to have leader by committee. Elfrid is the point guard and handles the ball, so he's always on guys about everything. Alan is a senior and has done a good job of being a quiet leader, and Bryant has been with the team the longest. Each player has their own perspective that allows them to help lead the team.
MMM: There was another player I saw on the roster I was curious about. Aaron LeBlanc is listed as a junior but doesn't have any career stats to his name, where does he fit in?
CM: Aaron is a walk-on. He originally went to Nicholls State and transferred here, came to us in the spring right at the end of the season. A player on our roster who graduated last year, David Perez, Aaron actually went to the same high school, so they got in touch and David mentioned his name to us, helped us get him in here.
We put him out there on the floor to see what he could do, and we were really impressed with how he was able to go out there and compete and be aggressive.
MMM: I noticed several players on your roster in the past couple seasons from Odessa Junior College. Is that just coincidence? Are you having success stretching your recruiting beyond Western LA and into Texas, especially Houston, given your past success at Sam Houston State?
CM: One of my staff actually worked there in the past, so it's been somewhere we have an existing relationship developed. We actually just spent the last three weeks in Texas recruiting, and we still have a very strong reputation with a number of coaches in the area from the time at Sam Houston. One freshman from there we're actually very excited about is Kasey Shepherd, we think we got a real steal there.
MMM: With all that said, what is one thing your fans and opponents might be surprised by when the season finally gets going?
CM: I think we're going to be a much better shooting team, and we're going to shoot the three a lot better. Even the interior players we have can do that; last season guys like Coleby and McClellan didn't have that ability, so now I think we'll get much better at making those outside shots and stretching the defense.
Hat tip to Director of Basketball Operations Brock Morris for patiently working with me to make this possible.