How UL Ragin' Cajuns coach Bob Marlin mapped out Sun Belt Conference basketball tournament

Tim Buckley
Lafayette Daily Advertiser

The Sun Belt Conference Tournament has a new home.

For Ragin’ Cajuns men's basketball coach Bob Marlin, that means returning to an old stomping ground – Pensacola, Florida.

The location is near and dear to Marlin, so much so a banner with special meaning awaits to be seen on the wall of the gym where the Cajuns will first play this week.

“It’s nice to be able to go to a place you’re familiar with,” Marlin said.

UL (16-8, 10-7) opens Saturday (5:13 p.m., ESPN+) with a quarterfinal round game against South Alabama.

The game will be played at Pensacola State College’s Hartsell Arena, a cozy 1,000-seat and nearly 75-year-old facility that’s been renovated multiple times. It’s one of two venues hosting the Sun Belt Tournament, along with the main one, Pensacola Bay Center.

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The tournament previously was held in New Orleans for several seasons, and Hot Springs, Arkansas, prior to that.

Its locale is not the only thing that’s changed over the years.

Back when Marlin coached there from 1990-95, the school was known as Pensacola Junior College. Its president was Ed Hartsell. And the arena was then called the Ross Center, named after the program’s first basketball coach.

These days the school is Pensacola State College, a four-year university that still plays juco ball.

The gym, now named after its former president, is where Marlin won a national championship in 1993.

The banner recognizing that title still hangs on one wall.

“We had a lot of success at the Ross Center … Hartsville Arena … and won a lot of basketball games there,” said Marlin, who was 123-35 at PSC.

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Sun Belt Tournament field wide open

UL coach Bob Marlin calls a play from the sideline during a game against Little Rock last season.

Marlin – who parlayed the NJCAA championship into a gig as an assistant coach under David Hobbs at Alabama, then later became coach at Sam Houston State – is now the winningest coach in Sun Belt history, passing Kermit Davis Jr. last week.

He’s in his 11th season at UL, which has won three of its past four games – including a split at Little Rock last weekend to end the regular season – going into the tournament.

It’s a wide-open field, with four ESPN prognosticators projecting four different winners for the automatic qualifier for the NCAA Tournament.

The Cajuns, the No. 2 seed behind Texas State in the Sun Belt West Division, weren’t one of them.

Georgia State, which has won six straight, is the No. 1 seed in the East and Coastal Carolina is No. 2.

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“They’ve got fresh legs, I know that,” Marlin said of Georgia State, one of UL’s longtime Sun Belt basketball rivals. “They’ve got a good group, as I know a lot of the other teams do, too.”

But Marlin suggested to not discount South Alabama, which could have had a first-round bye had it not been swept by Georgia State last weekend at home. He also said Appalachian State has “a good team” and that preseason favorite Little Rock has “a good basketball team too.”

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Bob Marlin believes in his Cajuns

Ragin' Cajuns coach Bob Marlin watches in the background as guard Cedric Russell handles the ball during a Feb. 22 game against Texas-Arlington at the Cajundome.

All Marlin knows for certain is that he’s firm in believing the Cajuns, who have not made the NCAA Tournament since 2014, shouldn’t be left out of the conversation.

Led by senior guard Cedric Russell (17.5 points per game), junior guard Mylik Wilson (12.5 ppg) and junior big man Theo Akwuba (11.1 ppg, 9.3 rebounds per game), they’re quite capable of a three-game run – especially if their 3-point shooters, including Russell, Ty Harper and Devin Butts, are hitting.

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“Shot-making,” Marlin said, “is a big part of it.”

But having a little built comfort in what is a new setting for most is no small part.

Marlin certainly has that, which may be part of why he seems so confident the Cajuns  can make it from Pensacola State College to Pensacola Bay Center, where Sunday’s semifinals and Monday’s championship game will be played.

“I won’t need a map,” Marlin said, “to get either one of those buildings, I can promise you that.”

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