UL heads into a 'guard's game' against Georgia Southern
The last time UL visited Georgia Southern, the Ragin’ Cajuns were without injured guard P.J. Hardy.
They were without injured guard Trajan Wesley. Oh, and they were without injured guard Mylik Wilson.
Whether having all three can make a difference is something they will find out Monday night, when No. 8 seed UL visits the fifth-seeded Eagles in Statesboro, Georgia, for a second-round Sun Belt Conference Tournament game.
Cajuns coach Bob Marlin seems to think it might.
“This is a guard’s game all the way,” Marlin said after advancing in the tournament with Saturday’s 73-66 first-round win over Arkansas State at the Cajundome, “and it’s gonna be a guard’s game Monday night up in Statesboro also.”
That’s especially the case with the Eagles often going small and playing four guards.
So it should help that the 14-18 Cajuns have Wilson back from the knee injury, Wesley back from the concussion and Hardy back from the ankle sprain that kept all three out of UL’s 71-51 loss at Georgia Southern back on Jan. 11.
Each has been instrumental down the stretch for the Cajuns, who’ve rallied to win four of their last six.
Hardy scored 19 and hit 6-of-12 from 3-point range during UL’s 77-74 late regular-season win over Arkansas State at the Cajundome three games ago. Wesley scored all 11 of his points in the first half of Saturday’s rematch with the Red Wolves. And Wilson scored a game-high 17 with a game-high 11 rebounds Saturday.
It should help too that it appears guard Cedric Russell — who scored 22 in the late regular-season game against Arkansas State, 28 in a regular season-ending win over Coastal Carolina and 12 against Arkansas State on Saturday — will be good to go despite injuring his forearm, then returning, late in the tournament game.
Then again …
UL on Monday is likely to again be without starting big man Tirus Smith, who remains suspended for unspecified disciplinary reasons.
Smith scored all 12 of his points and pulled down all five of his boards during the first half of the January loss in Statesboro.
“Tirus (was) the best guy in the court in the first half,” Marlin said, “and we don’t have him either.
“But it’s a guard’s game,” he added, “and it should be a good basketball game.”
Russell is encouraged by what UL did early on during the January loss, when the Cajuns led by as many as nine the first half and by four at the break.
“I felt we played … 20 minutes of that first half against them the first game, like, well,” he said. “I feel like we beat them that first 20 minutes at Statesboro. … And we didn’t have (Wilson) and (Hardy or Wesley), so I feel like it’s a revenge trip.”
Georgia Southern also beat UL 86-79 on Feb. 8 at the Cajundome, where the Cajuns committed 15 turnovers while Ike Smith led the Eagles with 25 points and fellow guard Quan Jackson added 23.
Marlin got booted from that one on a pair of technical fouls.
“They’ve got good players too,” the Cajuns coach said.
“If you remember — I’ll have to go watch the film, because I didn’t see it live, but — the two guys, Quan Jackson and Ike Smith, put on quite a show here. I mean, they shot (18-of-23) between ’em. And that was a game we could have won.
“Cedric (Russell) missed a couple free throws late in that game, if you remember,” Marlin added. “We just didn’t finish the game. We had an opportunity to win it, and we didn’t.”
Russell scored a team-high 23 then, but he hit just 4-of-8 from the free-throw line and 3-for-10 from long distance.
This time, Wilson said, “I feel like if we just stay in the game, and don’t turn the ball over, share the ball … we can win the game.”
The Cajuns expect to face a raucous atmosphere for the on-campus tourney game in Statesboro.
“They love us there, I can promise you. They’ll be sitting right behind our bench and giving us an earful,” Marlin said. “It will be a challenge. Tanner Fieldhouse is one of the toughest places to play in the league, because it’s small and loud, and they’ve got a good basketball team.”
“We’ve got it stacked against us,” Russell added, “but at the end of the day we have to go out and play.”
The winner of Monday’s game advances to face No. 4 seed Georgia State in Atlanta.
The winner of that one will play a semifinal-round game 11:30 a.m. Saturday at the Smoothie King Center in New Orleans against No. 1 seed Little Rock, which received what amounts to a three-game bye.
Second-seeded South Alabama also received a three-game bye into the semifinals.
The conference’s ESPN2-televised championship game is scheduled for 1 p.m. Sunday at Smoothie King Center.
WILSON HONORED BY SUN BELT
UL’s Mylik Wilson was honored late last week as the Sun Belt’s Freshman of the Year.
“It means a lot,” he said, “but I just try to stay humble – don’t get the big head. It’s a good thing to have, but I’m just trying to finish the year off strong.”
But the award is deserved, Marlin suggested.
“He’s done a really good job,” the Cajuns coach said of the Rayville High product, “and he helps you win in a lot of different ways.”
Wilson is averaging 11.6 points, 5.7 rebounds from his guard spot, 2.9 assists and 2.4 steals per game. He went into the Sun Belt Tournament as the only freshman in the country averaging at least 11, 5, 2 and 2, Wilson also leads all SBC freshmen in scoring, rebounding, steals and minutes per game, and he is second nationally among freshmen in total steals.
For the first time in Marlin’s 10-year Cajun coaching career, meanwhile, UL did not put a player on any of the three all-conference teams.
Named to the first team: Appalachian State junior guard Justin Forrest; Little Rock teammates Ruot Monyyong and Markquis Nowell, both underclassmen; South Alabama redshirt senior forward Josh Ajayi; and Texas State senior guard Nijal Pearson.
Pearson was named Player of the Year, Monyyong (a junior) both Defensive Player and Newcomer of the Year and Little Rock’s Darrell Walker Coach of the Year.
Coastal Carolina’s DeVante Jones, Georgia Southern’s Quan Jackson, Georgia State’s Kane Williams, UL Monroe’s Michael Ertel and Texas-Arlington’s David Azore were named to the second team.
All are underclassmen.
Named to the third team: Little Rock sophomore Kamani Johnson, Arkansas State junior Marquis Eaton, Georgia Southern fifth-year senior Ike Smith, Georgia State sophomore Justin Roberts and South Alabama fifth-year senior Trhae Mitchell.
-- Tim Buckley
RAGIN’ CAJUNS BASKETBALL
UL (14-18) at Georgia Southern (18-13)
WHAT: Second-round Sun Belt Tournament game
WHEN: 6 p.m. (central) Monday
WHERE: Tanner Fieldhouse; Statesboro, Georgia
RADIO: KHXT 107.9 FM
UL LEADERS: Jalen Johnson (15.3 points per game, 6.7 rebounds per game), Cedric Russell (14.1 ppg), Mylik Wilson (11.9 ppg, 2.9 assists per game), P.J. Hardy (10.9 ppg)
GEORGIA SOUTHERN LEADERS: Ike Smith (14.2 ppg), Quan Jackson (13.4 ppg), Isaiah Crawley (13.2 ppg, 6.3 rpg), Elijah McCadden (10.9 ppg)