4 keys to UL Ragin Cajuns winning 2021 Sun Belt men's basketball tournament

Tim Buckley
Lafayette Daily Advertiser

The Ragin’ Cajuns men’s basketball team had a seven-game winning streak early this season.

They won four in a row in mid-to-late January and three straight late last month before losing their regular-season finale at Little Rock.

All the Cajuns need now to get to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2014 is three consecutive victories at the Sun Belt Conference Tournament. The quest starts Saturday (5:13 p.m., ESPN+) at Pensacola State College in Florida againstSouth Alabama.

Here are some keys to getting it done for the Cajuns:

Kobe Julien making a difference

With starting point guard Brayan Au out the rest of the season following knee surgery, combo guards Mylik Wilson, Ty Harper and Cedric Russell have had to play extra minutes.

If 6-foot-6 forward Kobe Julien (knee surgery) can contribute after playing his first games of the season last weekend, everyone gets a little relief.

“It’s good to have him back,” coach Bob Marlin said.

HELP NEEDED:What Ragin' Cajuns guard Mylik Wilson did to get going after a rough stretch

Julien lost his 2019-20 freshman season to knee surgery coming out his Baton Rouge high school, Madison Prep, then got hurt again before league play started last season.

He was averaging 12.8 points per game at the time.

Julien had six points and two rebounds in 14 limited minutes in the first of two games at Little Rock, followed by six points and five boards in another 14 minutes. 

“(Julien) definitely got his feet wet, and it got his confidence going,” Marlin said. “To step out there and have a little bit of success and get knocked down and stand back up and go at it again is very important.”

Kobe Julien, shown here attempting a dunk during a December 2019 game against Southeastern Louisiana, could be a big key if the Ragin' Cajuns have success at the 2020-21 Sun Belt Conference Tournament.

If Julien provides punch this weekend, it could do wonders for the Cajuns.

“We’d like to have Brayan (Au) back,” Marlin said, “but we’re comfortable with what we have going on.”

Related:What to know about Ragin' Cajuns point guard problem

Jacobi Gordon delivering

Having reserve big man Jacobi Gordan available could help rotation regulars Theo Akwuba, Dou Gueye and Isaiah Richards if the Cajun bigs find foul trouble.

Gordon (sprained ankle) was held out at Little Rock, but Marlin said “hopefully he’ll be good to go” in Pensacola.

More:New Cajuns big Theo Akwuba is imposing at 6-foot-11 with a 7-6 wingspan

The Cajuns must aim to shoot well

Perhaps the biggest essential is most simple. “We’ve got to make shots,” Marlin said.

UL finished conference play with the second best 3-point shooting percentage at 39.3%, trailing only Texas State. But the Cajuns were seventh overall including nonconference games (35.2%).

Marlin needs the hot hands from conference play to stay warm, especially since Sun Belt basketball is largely a guard’s game. That starts with Russell, whose 41% success rate on 173 attempts ranks third among SBC 3-point leaders.   

“Hopefully we’ll make them this weekend,” Marlin said. “We’re confident we will.”

Watch:Devin Butts, Cajuns steal a game at Texas State

UL needs decent defense and more

It always starts on the defensive end in Marlin’s mind. This weekend is no different. But there’s more.

“We’ve got to rebound too,” Gueye said.

A little luck won’t hurt, either.

“The team that plays well together,” Marlin said, “plays good defensively, makes shots, catches a break, maybe wins a game where they don’t play their best.”

“If everybody buys in,” Gueye added, “we’re gonna do something special.”

Emotional coach:Garry Brodhead honors those who couldn't see Sun Belt win

Help:When Hurricane Laura hit Brandi Williams' home, the Cajuns had her back