With no NCAA bid, 27-6 Cajuns facing LSU in the NIT

Tim Buckley
The Daily Advertiser

He tried to hold his head high.

But in the immediate aftermath of top-seeded UL’s 71-68 Sun Belt Conference Tournament loss to No. 4 seed Texas-Arlington on Saturday in New Orleans, the disappointment was evident in Bryce Washington’s voice.

Bryce Washington of the Ragin' Cajuns drives to the basket during UL's Sun Belt Conference Tournament semifinal-round loss to Texas-Arlington on Saturday. Washington, whose nose was bloodied in the game against UTA, are headed to the NIT.

The now 27-6 and NIT-bound Cajuns met multiple goals along the way in 2017-18, including a school-record number of wins and a Sun Belt Conference regular-season title, but, as expected after Saturday's loss, they were unable to secure the biggest of them all, an NCAA Tournament invite.

UL will open NIT play as a No. 6 seed in its eight-team region in Baton Rouge against No. 3 region seed LSU (17-14).

Asked about what awaits, the Ragin’ Cajuns' senior power forward could only try to stay positive.

“The goal was the NCAA Tournament, especially for the five seniors (Washington, Johnathan Stove, Frank Bartley IV, Larenz Stalcup and Jacob Broussard),” Washington said after the unexpected loss to UTA. “You know, we fell a little bit short.

“But just to get a chance to play in the NIT is a blessing still. It gives you a chance to wake up and go to practice.”

Second-seeded Georgia State went on to claim the Sun Belt’s automatic bid, beating UTA 74-61 behind 27 points from SBC Player of the Year D’Marcus Simonds. The Panthers open NCAA tourney play Friday in Nashville as a No. 15 seed against Cincinnati. 

More:Sun Belt Basketball Championship scoreboard

UL settles for the next-best alternative, a berth in the long-running National Invitation Tournament.

The Cajuns and Tigers, who have not met since December of 2009, will play at 6 p.m. central Wednesday. The game will air on ESPN3.

"It's nice to be playing close to home," UL coach Bob Marlin said Sunday night. "We tried to play LSU before, and they didn't want to play."

The UL-LSU winner will play the winner of another first-round game between Utah and UC Davis; if UL were to win, it would play at Utah if the Utes won or otherwise at home sometime this weekend against UC Davis, a UL spokesman said.

More:Marlin says UL leader Washington 'loves to rebound' 

The Cajuns received an automatic bid to the 32-team consolation tourney as one of 14 regular-season conference champs that didn’t secure an NCAA Tournament invite.

The postseason bid is UL’s fifth over Marlin’s eight seasons in charge of the program.

More:Plenty of hurt for UL in Sun Belt tourney loss to UTA

It’s not the coveted NCAA Tournament, which the Cajuns last went to in 2014 with future NBA players Elfrid Payton and Shawn Long on the roster, but it is much higher-profile than the CIT, in which UL took part in 2013, ’15 and ’16.

Established in 1938, the NIT actually is the predecessor to the NCAA Tournament as college basketball’s premier postseason tournament.

Texas Christian won it last season, beating Georgia Tech in the title game.

The tourney’s format — a bracket with essentially four eight-team regions, each of which is seeded — has three rounds of play at local sites, followed by the semifinals on March 27 and, on March 29, the title game at Madison Square Garden in New York.

A few experimental rules changes for the NIT this year, according to SBNation.com:

The three-point line gets extended back 20 inches to where the arc is in international FIBA play, the free throw lane gets widened four feet to NBA length, teams will shoot free throws after the fifth foul of each quarter, the shot clock resets to 20 seconds after offensive rebounds instead of 30 seconds, and games will be played in four 10-minute quarters rather two 20-minute halves.

More:UL's NCAA plans spoiled after Sun Belt Tournament loss to UTA

It’s not exactly what UL was planning on, but Washington vowed he and the Cajuns will try to make the most of it.

“You really want to leave a legacy to these young guys,” he said in New Orleans. “One thing that my goal was is to pass the torch when I leave.

“This guy sitting next to me (Justin Miller, a sophomore), he’s next up. So there’s no point of me putting my head down, because if I put my head down he’s gonna put his head down. That’s not what a leader does.

“So,” Washington added, “let’s refocus and try to win the next game and just keep winning.”

Related:Cajuns miss Gant's presence in Sun Belt tourney loss

More:Miller's shining moment comes amid season of sacrifice