Photo courtesy of Louisiana athletics
Years ago when the Sun Belt Conference was morphing into somewhat a semblance of what it looks like today, some questioned if the football side would make it at all or become the laughingstock of the NCAA.
For those that remember, the Sun Belt always had teams in the “bottom 10” list by whichever smart ass had written it that week. But we digress. Another fear was that by adding teams just because they played FBS football was going to take away from something the Sun Belt was respected for — men’s basketball.
Well, after seeing many teams come and go, the current version of the Sun Belt may be stronger in both football and men’s basketball than it has ever been.
The 2020-21 Season
For the purpose of this post, let’s begin with basketball. First, let’s look at the Eastern division. Georgia State leads the way with an overall record of 16-6 and an incredible home record of 9-1.
Its Sun Belt record of 8-4 is also the best in the East. However, Coastal Carolina (18-8) and South Alabama (17-11) finished with winning records overall and in conference.
Appalachian State (17-12) won the conference tournament by virtue of a win over Georgia State. Georgia Southern (13-13) finished with a .500 record overall but a losing record in conference. Troy is the only team in the East that had an off season, finishing 11-17 and 4-12 against Sun Belt competition.
Texas State surprised many by not only winning the West, but by finishing 18-7 (12-3). Louisiana came in second at 17-9 (10-7). UT Arlington finished third at 13-13 (9-8). Arkansas State (11-13, 7-8), Little Rock (11-15, 7-11) and Louisiana Monroe (7-19, 5-13) finished out the rest of the West.
For the 2020-21 regular season, six Sun Belt teams had winning records and six had losing records. Georgia State, South Alabama and Louisiana have traditionally had strong programs. Texas State and Coastal Carolina have proven to be teams that are going to be in the hunt for the conference championship year after year. Georgia Southern and UT Arlington are not far behind.
As for Louisiana
Georgia State has appeared in the conference championship game in 2015, 2018, 2019 and in 2021. That’s the consistency most fans are looking for. Louisiana’s championship appearances in that same time frame are zero.
Since head coach Bob Marlin took over prior to the 2010-11 season, Louisiana is 204-151 overall and 119-82 in conference. Over that stretch, the Ragin’ Cajuns have three CIT appearances, one NIT appearance and one NCAA Tournament appearance (2014).
Is this enough to keep fans in Lafayette happy? For many, the lack of conference championships and NCAA appearances says no.
It’s not just about regular season wins and losses. It’s about competing for division titles, conference championships and NCAA Tournament appearances. It is as simple as that. Fans are one thing, but coaches and administration have to expect and demand more.
Here is a look at the two previous coaches before Marlin:
1986-97: 176-146 overall record (.547)
Two NCAA appearances
1997-2004: 132-81 overall record (.620)
Two NCAA appearances, two NIT appearances
2004-10: 80-100 overall record (.444)
One NCAA appearance
Where is Louisiana Headed?
Five NCAA appearances in 35 years? Yeah, there was another one but that doesn’t count. On average, Louisiana earns one trip to the dance every seven years.
Expectations definitely need to be much higher at the University of Louisiana. All of the athletic programs at Louisiana deserve support. The Ragin’ Cajuns have the talent to win the men’s basketball bid.
Any criticism centers on the lack of leadership within the program and even that is not personal. This isn’t to suggest that coaching changes need to be made — at least not yet.
Marlin is a good coach and his wins to losses proves that. However, he has to find a way and fast to get Louisiana to the NCAA Tournament. That’s ultimately how his legacy will be defined.