Questions aside, UL vs. LSU matchup fun

Kevin Foote
The Daily Advertiser

When the shot came on the ESPNU screen that No. 6 Louisiana was playing at No. 3 LSU in the opening round of the NIT Tournament, it verified a few suspicions floating around in recent weeks.

It also unearthed some frustrating old questions that don’t have easy answers.

JaKeenan Gant dunks the ball as the Louisiana Ragin' Cajuns take on the Little Rock Trojans at the Cajundome. Saturday, March 3, 2018.

“Why is UL having to travel to LSU?”

“Why have UL and LSU only played four times in 1937 in men’s basketball?”

“LSU plays UL in baseball all the time. Why not in basketball?”

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Cajun head coach Bob Marlin is among the ring-leaders hungry for answers.

He revealed UL Director of Athletics Bryan Maggard made numerous calls in an effort to bring some clarity.

“Trying to get a read on the seeding since our RPI is much better, our record is much better and I feel like our gym’s better,” Marlin said. “There are a lot of things that say that we should be a higher seed than we were. We’ve got the second-best record in the tournament of the 32 teams.”

UL coach Bob Marlin adds 6-7 transfer Jalen Johnson of St. Louis.

Perhaps it's as simple as LSU's average attendance being 9,158, compared to 4,219 for the Cajuns.

Either way, Marlin's frustration is understandable, but as he later said, “it is what it is.”

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What has never really made sense to me is the lack of games between these programs on the hardwood.

Perhaps when this was still more of a basketball state, LSU’s program had “more to lose” if they fell to the Cajuns.

Now that baseball has clearly overtaken hoops in popularity in Louisiana, it would seem like the basketball programs would unite more than ever to further interest in the sport here.

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“I think it’s healthy for the state,” Marlin said. “It’s good for Louisiana basketball.”

So while there remain frustrating questions for some, at least the matchup is happening.

“But it’s not about the venue,” Marlin said. “It’s about the team that plays the best Wednesday night for 40 minutes.”

True perhaps, but the Tigers are 3-7 on the road this season and 13-4 at home. The Cajuns, meanwhile, are 14-1 at home and 10-3 on the road.

 The two programs have met only four times since 1937 — the last year LSU made the trip to Lafayette to play.

To LSU’s credit, the two programs did play four times from 2001-09 with the Tigers winning all four.

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Looking into it, apparently it’s not just an LSU thing. Other schools in the region have the "too much to lose" mentality as well.

Arkansas hasn’t played Arkansas State since 1948, and has never played Little Rock. Alabama has only played UAB once and South Alabama just three times.

Auburn, on the other hand, has played UAB 19 times since 1982, and South Alabama nine times.

Georgia’s played Georgia Southern 15 times, Georgia State seven, but has played Mercer 78 times.

Ole Miss has only played Jackson State three times.

“The guys are excited to playing LSU,” Marlin said. “It’s an opportunity to play an in-state game and we’re all about playing in-state opponents. We try to play everyone. A couple of teams — them (LSU) and Tulane — have not been very responsive.

“We tried to play them a year ago in an exhibition game when the flooding happened and they wouldn’t do that. We tried to play tournaments, classics, in the LABC whether it be here or there and rotate — we wouldn’t necessarily play each other — but they weren’t for that either.”

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First-year coach Will Wade hasn’t pushed the needle.

“No, it hasn’t,” Marlin said. “I called Will when he got the job and we talked. I didn’t ask that day. I waited and called him back a few weeks later, but they’re not interested in playing.”

Sure the Cajuns wanted to be in the NCAA Tournament, but this is certainly the best possible consolation prize.

It brings excitement to a tournament that sometimes lacks for motivation. When you have a roster filled with Louisiana-born players, playing LSU is just fun.

Two of them — Frank Bartley and Johnathan Stove — are from Baton Rouge, so what a great memory to help close out their careers.

And for the Tigers rebuilding under Wade after a 10-21 season in 2017, the chance at postseason success is big.

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That’s one question that seems to have an answer.

“LSU is going to be excited to play,” Marlin said. “A lot of times you get in the NIT and the SEC teams that finish tied for ninth, or whatever they did, are not very interested in playing at this time of the year, but they’ll be interested. It’s a big step for them.”

The big question for the Cajuns is the health of Stove (ankle sprain) and JaKeenan Gant (illness). Their absence played a huge role in UL’s 71-68 semifinals loss to UTA on Saturday.

Marlin said Gant’s latest X-ray was clear.

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“We need our full team to go play the best that we can play and be the type of team we’ve been the majority of the season,” he said.

And make this rare meeting as exciting as it can possibly be.

After all, it could be awhile before it happens again.