UL's Marlin: Smith is to ULM what Gant is to the Cajuns
When UL visits UL Monroe on Saturday afternoon, the Ragin’ Cajuns will be prepared to face a Warhawks team that doesn’t exactly resemble those from days not long gone by.
It was in 2014-15 that ULM finished 24-14, reaching the College Basketball Invitational finals. It then went 20-14 and played in the CollegeInsider.com Tournament in 2015-16, capping a second-straight 20-win season.
A drop to 9-24 followed in ’16-17.
And now, after finishing .500 with another CIT appearance last season, coach Keith Richard’s Warhawks — loaded with transfers, including several from junior-college ranks and one, Daishon Smith, from Wichita State who currently is the No. 2 scorer in the Sun Belt Conference — are 9-7, and looking little like they did when times were really good.
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“Coach Richard’s done a great job,” UL coach Bob Marlin said.
“They kind of reloaded. He was senior-heavy. … They’re trying to get a two-year fix, and stay old, and it’s working for them.
“And he’s changed his style of play a little bit,” Marlin added. “They used to grind, and be slow, and be tough defensively.”
“They’re shooting the ball,” Marlin said.
With 392 of their 910 field goals this season coming on trey tries, the Warhawks — 2-2 in Sun Belt play, just like the Cajuns — lead the league in 3-point shooting at 39.8 percent.
They’re also shooting 78 percent from the free-throw line, which leads the SBC as well.
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“So they’re doing a good job of shooting the ball faster, scoring the ball faster,” Marlin said.
One big reason for that: Smith.
The senior transfer is averaging 20.8 points per game, second only to Arkansas State’s Ty Cockfield at the start of the SBC week.
Even after UL’s JaKeenan Gant scored 45 points in a win over Little Rock earlier this month, it was Smith — with 42 in a 97-84 win over Little Rock and 24 in an 85-75 win over Arkansas State — who earned Sun Belt Player of the Week honors that particular week.
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Gant, who leads the Sun Belt in blocks and UL in both scoring and rebounding, won the same honor this past week after scoring 36 in a loss at Georgia State followed by 22 with 12 rebounds in last Saturday’s win at Georgia Southern.
“He (Richard) feels like he (Smith) gives them more athleticism; a playmaker, a guy like JaKeenan that’s athletically special and can do things that others can’t do,” Marlin said.
“And certainly he can shoot the basketball. He’s a very good 3-point shooter, and he’s a very good free-throw shooter also, and an attack guy.”
In his lone season at Wichita State, Smith — a transfer from Tallahassee Community College — averaged 4.8 points and shot 38.4 percent from long distance while playing 14.9 minutes per game over 36 games including 12 starts.
He now leads the Sun Belt in 3-point percentage at 46.0 percent (46-of-100), and — with UL’s Malik Marquetti out for the season following knee surgery — he’s first among active SBC players from the foul line at 86.5 percent (64-of-74).
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Last season, according to Marlin, Richard asked him about how things went during the 2016-17 season in which Gant, Marquetti and starting point guard Marcus Stroman all sat out in accord with NCAA rules after transferring — from Missouri, Southern California and South Carolina, respectively.
“He said, ‘Our best player’s sitting out right now.’ … It was Smith,” said Marlin, whose Cajuns are idle Thursday night.
Behind Smith's presence, ULM — doing it a different way — is living up to its own coach’s preseason billing.
Four Warhawks — Smith, Michael Ertel (15.0), Travis Munnings (13.1) and JD Williams (12.9) — all are averaging double-digit scoring for a team that’s 7-0 at home this season.
Their two losses in four Sun Belt games both were by one point, first when Quan Jackson hit a 3-pointer at the buzzer for Georgia Southern in Statesboro and again when Georgia State’s D’Marcus Simonds scored on a controversial layup as time ran out in Atlanta.
“Keith (Richard) thinks they’re a top-three team, and so far they have been,” Marlin said. “And with a little luck, he could be 4-0 right now.”
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