UL starts 2018-19 basketball season with new big three
The big three — Bryce Washington, Frank Bartley IV and Johnathan Stove — are done.
And now it’s time for the next three — Ja’Keenan Gant, Marcus Stroman and Malik Marquetti — to take command of the UL basketball team, which opens its 2018-19 Tuesday night at the Cajundome against the University of the Virgin Islands.
“They did a really nice job blending in,” Ragin’ Cajuns coach Bob Marlin said of Gant, Stroman and Marquetti, who in many regards took a back seat to then-seniors Washington, Bartley and Stove a season ago.
“Now they’ve stepped up from being in the cast … and it’s time for them … to lead these other guys.”
Guys, that is, like junior returnees Justin Miller, Jerekius Davis and PJ Hardy; like juco-transfer Jeremy Hayes; like sophomore Cedric Russell; like freshmen Trajan Wesley and Kristian Lafayette, both of whom may see rotation time.
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“Marcus Stroman, Malik Marquetti, JaKeenan Gant all had great years last year,” Marlin said.
“And, to be honest, if they can continue to lead the way they have, and keep their game at a high level, it will be up to the junior class again to see what kind of depth they can give these guys as seniors.”
That’s much like the trio did for Washington, Bartley and Stove last season, when the Cajuns went 27-7, won the Sun Belt Conference’s regular-season championship at 16-2 and — after exiting early from the SBC Tournament in New Orleans — lost their opening NIT game to LSU.
All three transferred in after playing at high-level NCAA programs — Gant from Missouri, Stroman from South Carolina, Marquetti from USC.
All three sat out the 2016-17 season at UL, in accord with NCAA transfer rules.
And all three made big contributions in their first season on the floor as Cajuns, even while the seniors led the way.
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“They have a better understanding,” Marlin said, “and they’re stepping into a leading role instead of a supporting role.
“And I’m really pleased with what they’ve done. They’re all on track to graduate. They’ve worked hard … on the court, and also on their leadership.”
Playing down low alongside leading-rebounder Washington a season ago, Gant averaged 13.7 points, 5.8 rebounds and a Sun Belt-leading 2.3 blocks per game while also shooting a league-best 55.3 percent from the field.
He wound up getting named both Newcomer and Defensive Player of the Year in the Sun Belt, and is a second-team preseason All-SBC pick.
“JaKeenan is a great player,” Marlin said of Gant, who had 23 points and nine rebounds in UL’s open scrimmage Thursday.
“He’s had a great summer. He’s gotten stronger. He’s scoring the ball well in our scrimmages early. He’s done very well scoring and rebounding the ball.”
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Stroman took over at the point from current G-Leaguer Jay Wright and, with 6.5 assists per game, led the Sun Belt in assists-to-turnover ratio at 2.2.
After averaging just 6.8 points per game, and with Bartley’s-team 17.8 points per game gone and Washington 10.4 lost as well, he’s been asked to be more than just a distributor this season.
And in some practices, Marlin said, the third team All-SBC preseason selection has gotten into the paint and scored “sort of like Elfrid (Payton)” — now with the NBA’s New Orleans Pelicans — “did back when he played for us.”
At heart, though, Stroman — who did have 20 in Thursday’s scrimmage — is more of a pure point than a high-points threat.
“He’ll score some,” Marlin said. “He’ll have days where he’s really good, and other days where he’s really more of a pass-first guy.”
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Marquetti, meanwhile, averaged 8.1 points while shooting 41.3 percent from 3-point range last season.
After sharing time with Stove last season, he’s poised for a breakout playing both at small forward and at power forward when the Cajuns go small.
Yet, he’s also capable of handling the point in a pinch.
“He’s been dominant in our scrimmages, and in practice,” Marlin said. “He’s really playing the best basketball that he’s played since he’s been in our program.
“And he’s a hard guy to guard. He’s versatile. He can do a lot of things. He can guard different people.”
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The play of all three really will be critical for the Cajuns, who after opening at home against NAIA-member UVI will play six in a row on the road — including visits to No. 6 Tennessee on Friday night and No. 1 Kansas on Nov. 16.
“So look for them to be in the floor more than they were last year,” Marlin said. “I certainly think that (with) their maturity, and being a year older, that they’re all three gonna have a great year for us.”
What that leads to, though, remains to be seen.
Last season, the Cajuns fell shy of their ultimate target.
“It was disappointing,” Marlin said.
“Certainly it’s very hard to lose in a conference championship tournament when you’ve won the (regular-season) championship and feel like you’ve got the best team.
“But we’re excited to make another run for the championship,” he added, “and try to win it. … So we talked about March being ‘the end in mind.’ ”
With Gant, Stroman and Marquetti leading the way, UL’s target this season has is as clear as can be.
“Last year was a tremendous year for our basketball team,” Marlin said.
“Now this team is trying to make their own identity moving forward, and see if we can duplicate what we did last year — and also get to the NCAA Tournament.”
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