Balanced Cajuns' hope to do more than show up

Boasting four starters who average double-figures scoring, Louisville's first-round NCAA Tournament opponent, Sun Belt champion Louisiana-Lafayette, figures to provide a stern test for the Cardinals Friday night in Nashville, TN.

Louisville's opponent in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament, Louisiana-Lafayette, is the best 13-seed in the dance this season.

Champions of the Sun Belt Tournament the past two seasons, the Ragin' Cajuns are a balanced outfit led by three trasfers, two from the Southeastern Conference - Orien Green and Dwayne Mitchell - and one from East Tennessee State - Sun Belt tourney Most Outstanding Player Tirus Wade.

Wade leads Louisiana-Lafayette in scoring, averaging 20.4 points per game, while Green and Mitchell contribute 11.7 and 10.6 points, respectively. Green, a 6-4 guard who played for Billy Donovan at Florida, also leads the team in assists (4.1)

No stranger to the NCAA Tournament, the Cajuns lost to N.C. State 61-52 in the first round last season. That experience has first-year coach Robert Lee's team expecting more in the tourney this time around.

"We want to go into the NCAA Tournament with the same momentum we had in Denton (site of the Sun Belt Conference Tournament)," Wade told the Lafayette Daily Advisor. "We'd like to get to the Sweet 16. Once you do that, then every game gets you one step closer to a championship. Winning the championship is a big goal, but I think we could do it."

Forward Brian Hamilton, Louisiana-Lafayette's second leading scorer (13.5), said the team was excited just to be apart of the 65-team field last season, but added the Cajun's are focused on winning this year.

"Last year it was an exciting feeling to get in," Hamilton said. "Now we're focused on winning games, then we can celebrate after it's all said and done. We need to keep our focus on winning. The team that focuses longer will be the one that wins the championship."


Tiras Wade, the Ragin' Cajuns leading scorer, had 30
points against Denver in the Sun Belt
championship game (AP)

Green, who went to the NCAA Tournament with Florida before transferring to Louisiana-Lafayette, realizes what his team is up against when they face fourth-ranked Louisville Friday night in Nashville.

"You don't need to say too much about Louisville," said Greene. "Their program is known all over the country. They like an up-tempo game, which is all right with us. We'll be ready to play."

Green's return from a broken leg sufferred in a 96-52 loss at Kansas Dec. 11 proved a critical factor in La. Lafayette's strong play heading into the tournament. The Ragin' Cajuns have won 14 of their last 17 games, including three straight in the Sun Belt Tournament to receive the league's automatic NCAA Tournament bid.

Like Louisville, the Cajuns had hoped for a higher seed from the NCAA selection committee, and Lee knows the difficulty awaiting his team in Nashville.

"Louisville is a team that really likes to shoot the 3," Lee said. "They like up-tempo and they bring a lot of pressure, so we have to avoid turnovers if we're going to beat them. What concerns me is that we have had a difficult time guarding teams with multiple 3-point shooters."

In Taquan Dean, who has made 103 three's so far this season, Larry O'Bannon, Francisco Garcia, and even talented 6-8 freshman forward Juan Palacios, the Cardinals have proven all season they're a dangerous outfit beyond the arch. Not only is the three-point shot an integral component of the Cardinals' offense, opponents have had virtually no success stopping Louisville from deep this season.

And one of the most overlooked factors for their stellar outside shooting has been the presence inside provided by 6-7 senior Ellis Myles, whose size and passing ability in the post has made it difficult for opponents to concentrate solely on the Cardinals deep stock of shooters. Myles, probably the Cardinals' most valuable player last week at the C-USA Tournament in Memphis, dished out 22 assists in three wins over TCU, UAB and Memphis.

While peremiter play figures to be an important key for both teams the matchup between Myles and 6-11 Louisiana-Lafayette center Chris Cameron should be interesting in its own right.

Cameron, at 270-pounds, averages just 3.6 rebounds per game. He prefers to face the basket and has proven a capable outside shooter - he's made 32-85 three's on the season. Myles, who will likely have the assignment of guarding the Australian native will be challenged to get a hand in Cameron's face when the Cajuns center face's the basket from the perimeter.

Not a particularly deep team, the Cajuns use primarily two players - Spencer Ford and Ross Mouton - off the bench. Ford averages 4.5 points in his reserve roll, while Mouton provides 3.8 points per outing.


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