WORSHAM: LSU, UL-Lafayette matchup bringing plenty of spice to Louisiana hoops

If you like your hoops scalding hot, Cajun spicy, and potentially combustible, you’ll want to get to the Pete Maravich Assembly Center on Wednesday night when LSU and UL-Lafayette square off in the first round of the NIT.

Don’t get there for 6 p.m., when the game is set to tip. Show up at least an hour early, or you might miss the fireworks.

You might’ve already missed the opening salvos, in fact, if you haven’t been paying attention. Cajuns coach Bob Marlin has been lobbing bombs Baton Rouge’s way since the pairing was announced. The latest were backhanded, biting, and likely to land in the lockers of every Tiger player and coach this week.

“LSU is going to be excited to play. A lot of times you get into the NIT, and the SEC teams that finished tied for ninth – whatever they did – are not very interested in playing at this stage of the year,” Marlin deadpanned Monday. “But they’ll be interested, because it’s a big step for them. They’ve not been very good. We’ve had a better RPI and team than them the last couple of years in the state.”

As WBRZ’s Michael Cauble so eloquently stated, “Shaaaaaade!”

Marlin’s tossed several shady statements to the east since the matchup was announced Sunday. He seems particularly perturbed about the game’s site: Baton Rouge, instead of Lafayette, despite ULL’s 63 RPI and LSU’s 94. (Marlin failed, for whatever reason, to make mention of LSU’s seven wins over NCAA Tournament teams to ULL’s zero.)

“We would like to play this game at home,” he said. “Our athletic director reached out to the commissioner and to a couple others to get a read on the seeding and how that happened.

“Our RPI is much better, our record is much better, we feel like our gym’s better, there are a lot of things that say we should be a higher seed than we were. We’ve got the second-best record in the entire tournament out of 32 teams, but it is what it is.”

What it is, is the first matchup between the two teams since 2009 and just the sixth since 1945 – all LSU wins. The Tigers hold a 36-10 all-time record against the Cajuns, but their matchups have been infrequent – not, says Marlin, for his lack of trying.

“I called Will when he got the job. I didn’t ask him right then about playing, but I have since then and they’re not interested,” he said. “They probably didn’t want to play this game, to be honest.”

Don’t knock the saltiness from the Cajuns or their coach. Smaller programs with skins on the wall should be proud. Taking shots at the biggest show in town – even if that show hasn’t exactly been a Broadway production for a couple of years – is good marketing. Being gracious is the role of the bigger program; bringing spice to the table is the Cajuns’ role.

Wade, for his part, has played all the right notes, too. He didn’t take what little bait the media gave him on Monday, partly because Marlin’s quotes weren’t yet published in the papers, and partly because, in this writer’s opinion, of a tactical decision not to.

This is a no-win game for LSU, really. If you win, you were supposed to; if you lose, you’re in for an offseason of ribbing from the west.

Wade may or may not think that, but what he does think is that UL-Lafayette will come in motivated, despite missing the NCAA Tournament as the Sun Belt Conference Tournament favorites. Consider the following exchange Wade had with a reporter Monday.

Reporter: Do you think they have a little more motivation because they didn’t get into the NCAA Tournament?

Wade: Who?

Reporter: ULL. That they’ll be more motivated…

Wade: I hope they won’t be. I don’t know. You’ll have to ask them.

Reporter: Plus, they have to come here.

Wade: What do you mean, having to come here?

Reporter: Them having to play here instead of at home. I think they think they should’ve had a home game.

Wade: Oh, they do? Okay.

Everyone in the room: *Silence*

Wade: I’m sure they will be highly motivated, and we’ll be motivated as well.

That spicy, spicy bait? Wade wasn’t taking it.

He wasn’t taking his team to watch the NIT selection show Sunday, either. He spent that time watching film at home – he said “pretty much knew” Saturday when the Cajuns lost that they’d be LSU’s NIT matchup – and texting his team.

“We didn’t get together,” Wade said. “I mean, it’s the NIT. We don’t want to get real used to getting excited about the NIT, now.”

That doesn’t mean this year’s stay can’t be exciting, though. Marlin’s acrid takes and Wade’s tepid ones fuel both sides. LSU fans will not like the taste of ULL’s zest, and ULL fans won’t like the lack of appetite from Baton Rouge.

There are other tasty storylines, too. LSU has never won an NIT game at home, and it has lost two of its three home matchups in the tournament to in-state schools. ULL has two players from Baton Rouge in Johnathan Stove and Frank Bartley and a former LSU commit in Cedric Russell. The teams will play with experimental rules, like a deeper three-point line, a wider lane, and a four-quarters format, as part of the event’s annual tweaks. And both teams have real chances to make runs at New York City, where ULL has never been and LSU has not been since Pete Maravich took them there his senior season in 1970.

There are also intriguing matchups on the floor, too, where, you know, there will be an actual basketball game played.

It’s forgivable, though, if you’ve lost sight of that. The pre-game fireworks have been fun so far. Things can only get spicier come Wednesday night, starting with the pre-game handshakes and ending with whatever the scoreboard reads.

“I think it’s healthy for the state,” Marlin said. “It’s good for Louisiana basketball.”

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Cody Worsham