Coach Marlin Excited About 2015-16 Team

As a longtime St. Louis Cardinals fan, Louisiana men’s basketball coach Bob Marlin loves the month of October because that means it’s playoff season. It also means college basketball’s regular season is almost here.

On Monday, the Ragin’ Cajuns held their first official team practice of the 2015-16 season. Expectations are high for the Cajuns, who return seven of their top eight scorers from a 22-14 team that advanced to the CIT quarterfinals and ranked 16th nationally in scoring (77.5 ppg). Every reputable college basketball preview magazine has the Cajuns as the preseason Sun Belt favorite as they welcome back five late-season starters and five seniors, with the biggest name being all-league forward and All-America candidate Shawn Long.

“It’s October, so it’s baseball season and the air is crisp in Lafayette,” Marlin told the Cajun Redzone this week. “We had a good first practice with a lot of defensive fundamental drills, defensive transition drills and offensive primary play. It was good to get in the gym with all the guys and practice. With us being able to have summer workouts now we feel like we’re a bit ahead of the game.”

The Cajuns will be tested early in their sixth year under Marlin with six of the first nine games on the road, including trips to Miami (Nov. 16), Alabama (Nov. 20), Louisiana Tech (Dec. 12), UCLA (Dec. 15) and Pepperdine (Dec. 18). After a Nov. 9 exhibition game against Mississippi College in the Cajundome, the Cajuns open the regular season four days later at home against Louisiana College. Their conference opener is Dec. 3 at ULM.

Last season the Cajuns beat Incarnate Word in the opening round of the CIT for their first postseason win since downing Oklahoma in the 1992 NCAA tournament. They’ve won 45 games in the past two seasons to match the most for the program over a two-year stretch since 1982-84.

“We feel like we’ve got some momentum going into this season,” said Marlin, who signed a new five-year contract through 2020 after last season’s squad won nine of its last 11 games. “The schedule will ground us early with six of our first nine games on the road and five of our first six on the road in conference. Hopefully, we will have some success early and get into some rhythm and find it again come March.”

NBA scouts will be watching the 6-foot-11 Long (16.4 ppg, 10.2 rpg, 1.6 bpg, .542 FG, .364 3PT) closely this season after he nearly turned pro in the spring. Last season he earned first-team all-conference and Lou Henson Mid-Major All-America honors after ranking first in the league in rebounds and blocks, third in field goal percentage and fifth in scoring. Long leads all active Division I players with 52 double-doubles and 1,036 rebounds, is second in career points (1,700) and rebound average (10.3) and seventh in blocked shots (212). He is second in school history in blocks and rebounds and seventh in scoring. Over the summer he won a bronze medal with the U.S. Pan American team — only seven current college players made the squad — and attended the Nike Skills Camp in California.

Marlin described Long, who signed with Mississippi State out of high school, as a high-major talent who has made tremendous growth on and off the court in the past three years. Long is the consensus pick for preseason SBC player of the year and CollegeSportsMadness.com tabbed him as its preseason mid-major player of the year. He looks to follow a path similar to guard Elfrid Payton, who finished fourth in last season’s NBA Rookie of the Year race with the Orlando Magic after leading the Cajuns to the 2014 NCAA tournament.

“Shawn is a consistent player and has been dependable averaging a double-double for his career,” Marlin said. “Rebounding is his ticket, but he can score the ball, too. He’s running the floor better, is taking care of his body and in the best shape of his career and defending the pick-and-roll better and protecting the rim better. That puts him in position to be player of the year in our league and if he meets his goals we’re going to win and reach our goals as well and go to the NCAA tournament.”

The other returning late-season starters are junior guards Jay Wright and Hayward Register and sophomore forwards Johnathan Stove and Bryce Washington.

Wright (9.1 ppg, 3.6 apg, 3.1 rpg, 0.9 spg, .405 3PT) had a strong year last season as a junior college transfer. He made the All-SBC third team, was a finalist for the Lefty Driesell National Defensive Player of the Year award and hit the winning 3 with 0.9 seconds left to beat Sam Houston State in the second round of the CIT. After tying for fourth in the league in assists and finishing sixth with a 1.6 assist/turnover ratio, Wright averaged 11.7 points, four rebounds, four assists and three steals in May on a seven-game Far East tour with Reach USA. Marlin said Wright has improved his midrange and outside shooting.

“One of the reasons we wanted Jay was he had three years to play, and he made a nice transition to Division I last season,” Marlin said. “With another year we feel like he’s going to be even better. He’s very good defensively and can distribute and shoot it. Going overseas was a great opportunity for him and helped him grow as a person and basketball player. I look forward to him continuing to lead the team.”

A former all-state player at Comeaux High, the 6-2 Register (6.7 ppg, .397 3PT) played 14 minutes per game last season with starts in 14 of the final 15 contests. He averaged 8.9 points as a starter and finished second in the league in 3-point percentage and eighth in made 3s per game (2.0). Register had a career-high 20 points on 7-for-9 shooting (6-for-8 on 3s) in a home win over Appalachian State.

“He’s made some progress, and I feel like he’s better in midrange and getting to the basket and has worked on his defense as well,” Marlin said. “Regardless of what he does, he’ll be known for his shooting. He’s one of the best shooters in the league and a weapon other teams have to prepare for.”

A pair of former instate recruits, Stove (5.4 ppg, 2.1 rpg, 1.8 apg) and Washington (6.4 ppg, 5.2 rpg, 1.6 apg, .534 FG) both played this summer for Athletes in Action in New Zealand. The 6-4 Stove started 15 times last season, including 14 of the last 15 games. He had eight double-digit scoring efforts, with a season-high 19 points at Texas State.

The 6-6, 255-pound Washington was named the Louisiana Sports Writers Association’s Co-Freshman of the Year after ranking third on the team in rebounding and starting 17 games (15 of the final 16). He scored in double figures eight times and had a career-high 25 points on 11-for-14 shooting in a CIT win over Incarnate Word.

“It was a great opportunity for those guys to go play with Athletes in Action and their coach Kelly Combs was excited about how they played and the leadership they showed,” Marlin said of Stove and Washington. “Both are smart, durable players and understand what we’re trying to do and got great experience last year.”

Marlin said Stove will compete with 6-5 senior Steven Wronkoski (2.6 ppg, 1.7 rpg, .340 3PT) for playing time at small forward. Wronkoski, known for his leadership and shooting ability, averaged almost 12 minutes per game last season off the bench after making 36 starts in his first two college seasons.

A 6-3 guard, senior Kasey Shepherd (9.7 ppg, 2.6 rpg, 2.3 apg, 1.8 spg, .361 3PT, .841 FT) is expected to see minutes at both guard spots. Last season he played 20 minutes a game with 11 starts and tied for fourth in the league in steals and was ninth in 3-point percentage. He made the SBC all-tournament team after averaging 16 points, 3.5 assists and 1.5 steals.

Senior Devonta Walker (9.4 ppg, 5.3 rpg, .505 FG, .801 FT), a 6-7 forward, started 18 times last season and played 21 minutes a game as a junior college transfer. Walker was sixth in the league in field goal percentage and seventh in free throw percentage and had a 23-point, 19-rebound game at Northwestern State.

A former Louisiana Class 1A player of the year, 6-9 forward Scott Plaisance helped a Global Sports Academy squad that included players from UAB, Clemson and SMU go 5-0 in August against pro European teams after he redshirted as a freshman. Plaisance — whose sister, former LSU hoops standout Theresa Plaisance, has played in the WNBA and overseas — averaged 16.5 points, 10.5 rebounds and four blocked shots per game as a senior at Country Day.

“Steven had his best summer since he’s been here and is shooting well,” Marlin said. “Kasey can really shoot the ball and has had some big games for us. Devonta had a really good summer and I feel like he’s ready to break out. We feel like Scottie is going to give us some minutes because he’s a good athlete, runs and jumps well, defends the rim and is a very tough young man.”

Marlin pointed to junior college transfers Tyrone Wooten and Jay Hedgeman, both juniors, as newcomers who have stood out so far as well as freshman Jerekius Davis.

The 6-4 Wooten averaged 13.1 points and 5.1 rebounds per game as a guard at Itawamba Community College in Mississippi. Hedgeman is a 6-7 forward who averaged 10.1 points and 7.4 rebounds per game at San Jacinto College in Texas. Davis, a 6-6 forward from Provine High in Jackson, Miss., averaged 24.6 points and 11 rebounds per game last season to earn all-state honors.

“Tyrone is good at attacking the basket, a streaky scorer and really good defensively,” Marlin said. “Jay is long, versatile and a great teammate and can defend one through five. Jerekius is very talented on the perimeter and can play inside and outside.”

The Cajuns also return senior walk-on guard Tiremone Williams (0.9 ppg), signed freshman guard Kadavion Evans from North Caddo High in Vivian, La., and added transfers in guards Frank Bartley IV (BYU), Jacob Broussard (Centenary) and Matt Marlin (University of Texas). Freshman forward Garrett Capps, of Flower Mound High in Texas, has also joined the team as a walk-on.

Bartley, a junior whose father, Frank Bartley III, was an all-conference linebacker for the Cajuns in the 1970s, and Broussard, a sophomore walk-on and former Lafayette Christian Academy standout, must sit out this season.

As first reported by the Cajun Redzone in August, Marlin is eligible to play for his dad this season as a senior after receiving a waiver.

“It’s fun to be with him every day again,” coach Marlin said of his son. “He’s just trying to compete and be a good teammate. He was with me when he was six months old and we won a national championship (at Pensacola Junior College in 1993). Now he wants to win a championship as a player.”

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