LOS ANGELES (AP) Bryce Alford scored a season-high 27 points for No. 22 UCLA as the short-handed Bruins posted their fifth consecutive victory, holding off Louisiana-Lafayette 89-80 Tuesday night.
UCLA (8-3) played minus starting center Thomas Welsh, out with a stomach virus, and reserve Prince Ali, who bruised his left knee against Gonzaga on Saturday night.
Tony Parker and Isaac Hamilton each added 19 points for the Bruins.
Shawn Long contributed 26 points and 16 rebounds for Louisiana-Lafayette (3-5), which fell to 0-5 on the road this season.
For Long, it was his fifth double-double of the season. The 6-foot-11 senior is the NCAA Division I active leader in double-doubles (57) and total rebounds (1,117).
Kasey Shepherd scored 15 points and Jay Wright added 14 for the Ragin’ Cajuns.
The Bruins shot a season-best 55.4 percent from the field. Their previous best was 52.8 percent in their upset victory over then-No. 1 Kentucky two weeks ago.
UCLA, which led by as many as 19 in the first half, saw Louisiana-Lafayette pull within 63-59 with 10:13 to play.
The Bruins responded with an 11-2 spurt to lead 74-61, only to see the Ragin’ Cajuns close to 79-73 on Long’s 3-pointer with 2:17 to play.
UCLA made 7 of 8 free throws in the final minute for the victory.
The second half was refereed by two officials, David Hall and Marques Pettigrew, after referee Eric Curry left at halftime with an undisclosed injury.
Louisiana-Lafayette: The Ragin’ Cajuns, coming off back-to-back 20-win seasons, entered the game ranked third among NCAA Division I programs in scoring, averaging 90.0 points per game, having already eclipsed the century mark twice this season.
UCLA: With Welsh out, coach Steve Alford was forced to change his starting lineup for the first time this season. He replaced Welsh with 6-10 sophomore Jonah Bolden. … The Bruins cracked the AP Top 25 poll for the first time this season, boosted by two victories in nine days over ranked opponents, Kentucky 87-77 on Dec. 3 and No. 20 Gonzaga 71-66 on Saturday night.
Every March some plucky underdog seemingly comes out of nowhere to pull off an upset in the NCAA tournament, wrecking brackets across the country in the process. The key word in that sentence is “seemingly,” because each year there are teams that show signs throughout the season that they’re capable of winning once in the NCAA tournament.
Below are ten programs capable of pulling off an upset in the NCAA tournament as we approach the start of the 2015-16 campaign.
1. UAB: Jerod Haase’s Blazers pulled off one of the biggest upsets of the 2015 NCAA tournament, as they sent home three-seed and trendy Final Four pick Iowa State in the round of 64. All five starters from that team have returned, including two players in forward William Lee and guard Nick Norton who ranked among the top freshmen in Conference USA a season ago and conference tournament MVP Robert Brown. Reigning C-USA Sixth Man of the Year Chris Cokley anchors a deep and experienced bench. And with Brown being the Blazers’ lone senior, they could be at the top of this list in 2016-17 as well.
2. Valparaiso: The Crusaders narrowly missed out on an upset back in March, falling by just three points to four-seed Maryland. Vashil Fernandez receiving his fourth season of eligibility means that head coach Bryce Drew can call upon one of the top front court tandems around, pairing Fernandez with junior Alec Peters. Peters was a first team all-Horizon League selection last season, with Fernandez being the Defensive Player of the Year. In total ten of the eleven players who scored a point for Valparaiso last season are back, with guards Tevonn Walker and Darien Walker and wing E. Victor Nickerson among those contributors.
3. Stephen F. Austin: Brad Underwood’s first two seasons at SFA have produced consecutive NCAA tournament appearances, and the Lumberjacks have enough experience and talent to push that streak to three. Five seniors led by reigning Southland Conference Player of the Year Thomas Walkup have seen a lot in their college careers, including a wild win over VCU in the 2014 NCAA tournament. A group that was good on both ends of the floor (they ranked fifth in defensive turnover percentage, too) and won 29 of their final 30 games a season ago should pick up right where they left off in March.
4. Belmont: Like the three teams ahead of them on this list Rick Byrd’s Bruins reached the NCAA tournament a season ago, where they ran into a tough matchup in Virginia’s pack line defense. However it should be noted that Belmont scored 67 points in that loss, a mark met or surpassed by Virginia opponents just four times in 2014-15. Four starters from that team are back in Nashville, led by the OVC’s best player in senior guard Craig Bradshaw and the nation’s field goal percentage champion Evan Bradds (68.8 percent). The Bruins are highly efficient offensively, and that could make life difficult for an opponent unfamiliar with their style/personnel.
5. Old Dominion: Jeff Jones’ Monarchs fell short of their goal of an NCAA tournament bid a season ago, but they didn’t sulk once in the Postseason NIT. Trey Freeman and company reached the semifinals of that event, and the postseason experience should serve this group well. Freeman’s one of the best players in Conference USA, and in total ODU welcomes back three starters and four of their top six scorers. East Carolina transfer Brandan Stith pairs up with leading rebounder Denzell Taylor to help ODU account for the loss of Jonathan Arledge and Richard Ross from their front court, and this is a group that can be dangerous in a one-and-done scenario.
6. UC Irvine: The prohibitive favorites in the Big West, Russell Turner’s Anteaters had eventual Elite Eight participant Louisville on the ropes back in March. UC Irvine fell by just two points on that day, and many of the key contributors from that team have returned for another run at the NCAA tournament. That includes experienced guards Alex Young and Luke Nelson, wing Dominque Dunning and a front court with some serious size led by 7-foot-6 junior Mamadou Ndiaye. While UC Irvine isn’t an explosive offensive team, their defense is what makes them such a tough matchup for team not used to their style and personnel.
7. Iona: There’s no denying the fact that Tim Cluess’ Gaels are going to score points. Last season Iona averaged 79.5 points per game, and from an adjusted tempo standpoint only 11 teams played faster. Iona does have to account for the loss of MAAC Player of the Year David Laury, but four of the team’s top five scorers from a season ago are back led by high-scoring guards A.J. English and Shadrac Casimir. The key for Iona, especially in the MAAC tournament where they’ve fallen to rival Manhattan in each of the last two title games, will be their commitment on the defensive end. As we saw with Eastern Washington in March, being able to score doesn’t mean much if you can’t get stops.
8. Evansville: The Purple Aces have one of the better inside/out combinations around in high-scoring guard D.J. Balentine and forward/center Egidijus Mockevicius, who combined to average 32.6 points per game in 2014-15. That tandem helped lead Marty Simmons’ team to the CIT championship, and with all five starters back expectations are high for the Purple Aces. They’re in position to challenge preseason Missouri Valley favorite Wichita State, and given their talent and experience should Evansville reach the NCAA tournament they can cause trouble.
9. Central Michigan: Keno Davis’ Chippewas won 23 games and a MAC West Division title last season with an offense that shot the ball well and took good care of it too. All five starters, led by guard Chris Fowler and forward John Simons, are back on campus which should allow them to hit the ground running in 2015-16. The key for this group will be to get better on the defensive end of the floor (MAC foes shot nearly 54 percent from two), as they ranked 11th in field goal percentage defense, seventh in three-point percentage defense and ninth in effective field goal percentage defense (conference games only).
10. Louisiana: The biggest reason for the Ragin’ Cajuns’ inclusion on this list is the fact that they’ve got a likely pro in Shawn Long in their front court. The 6-foot-11 senior is the preseason pick for Sun Belt Player of the Year, coming off of a junior campaign in which he averaged 16.4 points and 10.2 rebounds per game. All five starters are back for head coach Bob Marlin, and while the Ragin’ Cajuns didn’t reach the NCAA tournament they did play in the CIT (losing to Evansville in the quarters) so there is some postseason experience to call upon.
Five others to keep in mind: Hofstra, Columbia, North Florida, Stony Brook, Pepperdine
Louisiana forward Shawn Long to return for senior season
After putting together an outstanding 2013-14 season in which he helped lead his team to the NCAA tournament (alongside Elfrid Payton), Louisiana forward Shawn Long once again averaged a double-double in 2014-15. On the receiving end of more attention from opponents Long averaged 16.4 points, 10.2 rebounds and 1.6 blocks per game for the Ragin’ Cajuns, who won 22 games and reached the quarterfinals of the CIT.
With this being his fourth season of college basketball (third playing), there was some thought that Long could move on. However according to Luke Johnson of the Acadiana Advocate (Lafayette, Louisiana), Louisiana head coach Bob Marlin announced at the team banquet that his 6-foot-9 star forward will return to school for his senior season.
BREAKING: Bob Marlin announces at team banquet that Shawn Long is returning for his senior season
Long’s decision to return for a fifth year (he sat out the 2011-12 season at Mississippi State before transferring) is a big one for Louisiana, which is now due to return four of its top five scorers from last season. Just two days ago Louisiana received a commitment from 6-foot-11 junior college forward/center Larenz Stalcup, so the return of Long gives them even more depth in the paint.
With the amount of talent due back in Lafayette, Louisiana is capable of challenging reigning Sun Belt champion Georgia State and making a run at its second NCAA tournament appearance in the last three years.
Louisiana star Shawn Long struggling with a foot injury
The 6-foot-10 Louisiana star averaged 18.6 points, 10.4 boards and 2.7 blocks as a sophomore — all while shooting 42.3 percent from three — but through five games this season, the potential NBA Draft pick is not himself. He’s averaging just 9.7 points and 4.0 boards while playing just 25 minutes a night.
To make matters worse, he sat out both of the Ragin Cajuns’ games in Las Vegas last week, a trip where Bob Marlin’s club went 1-1.
“He’s had a bone bruise and tendinitis in his foot,” Marlin told the Louisiana Daily World, “and it’s really bothered his mobility, and his lateral movement has not been very good, and his explosive either.”
Marlin gave Long the two days off in Vegas and his full team a couple of days off during the Thanksgiving break, and according to the story linked above, Long practiced this week and is expected play on Wednesday.
UL needs to get their star back to 100 percent if they are going to have a shot at beating Georgia State in the Sun Belt this year.
2014-2015 Season Preview: Georgia State is the heavy-favorite in the Sun Belt again
The power in the Sun Belt will once again lie in Atlanta. In 2013-2014, during just their second season in the conference, Georgia State steam-rolled through the regular season. They went 17-1 in league play and had the look of a program that was going to give some high seed nightmares. That was until they ran into Louisiana in the Sun Belt title game, blowing a nine-point lead in the final three minutes before losing in overtime.
The Panthers are looking for redemption this season, and they bring back enough talent that they should be the overwhelming favorites to get it. Ryan Harrow, who a former top 40 recruit that played at both N.C. State and Kentucky, starred for the Panthers last year. He’ll be joined in the back court by former top 50 recruit and Louisville guard Kevin Ware this season. Oh, and the best player on the team is sharpshooter R.J. Hunter. Georgia State is loaded. Period.
Their biggest challenger will likely be Louisiana once again. That’s because the Ragin’ Cajuns have another future NBA draft pick on their roster. Shawn Long may not be a top ten pick like Elfrid Payton was, but he is a 6-foot-10 big man that blocks a lot of shots, averaged 18.6 points and can hit threes. Oklahoma State transfer Brian Williams will provide a jolt of athleticism and toughness on the wing, but the x-factor will end up being Xavian Rimmer, a senior guard that played his best basketball late in the season and during the Sun Belt tournament.
Those two teams are probably a cut above the rest of the conference, but there are some capable teams in the league. Georgia Southern will be one to keep an eye on. There are a couple question marks — namely, how will GSU adjust to a new conference and just how long Eric Ferguson will be suspended for his offseason legal troubles — but if all goes according to plan, the Eagles return star guard Jelani Hewitt and get back a pair of former all-Southern Conference big men (Ferguson and Trent Wiedeman) who redshirted last season.
Arkansas-Little Rock loses Will Neighbour but they bring back Josh Hagins, James White and a healthy J.T. Thomas. Louisiana-Monroe loses a couple of starters, but they bring by all-league forward Tylor Ongwae. Losing a guy that averages 20 points isn’t easy to overcome, but UT Arlington‘s offense should be more balanced without Reger Dowell. Their senior back court of Lonnie McClanahan and Jamel Outler will be tough. Arkansas State lost seven of their top eight from last season. John Brady better home those new guys are ready to compete from day one.
In: Georgia Southern, Appalachian State Out: Western Kentucky
PRESEASON SUN BELT PLAYER OF THE YEAR: R.J. Hunter, Georgia State
The Sun Belt has had quite a bit of individual talent in the league over the last year or two, but Hunter is as good as any of them. That includes lottery pick Elfrid Payton. Hunter is a 6-foot-5 off-guard that is one of the best shooters in the country and capable of putting 30 on anyone.
THE REST OF THE PRESEASON ALL-SUN BELT TEAM:
Ryan Harrow, Georgia State, Sr.: Harrow thrived last season after transferring into the program from Kentucky, playing the role of point guard alongside Hunter.
Shawn Long, Louisiana, Jr.: Long is not only a very good college player, his ability to block shots and hit threes will get him NBA attention
Jelani Hewitt, Georgia Southern, Sr.: Hewitt was a big-time scorer in the SoCon for GSU last season, and his production should translate to the Sun Belt as well.
Tylor Ongwae, Louisiana-Monroe, Sr.: Ongwae, a 6-foot-7 forward, averaged 16.2 points in his first season with ULM after transferring into the program from a JuCo.
Williams posted averages of 6.2 points and 3.4 rebounds per game as a junior, shooting 48.8% from the field, 25.0% from three and 72.7% from the foul line. However he played more than 20 minutes in just two of Oklahoma State’s final eight games, including a 13-minute outing in their season-ending loss to Gonzaga in the NCAA tournament.
But his arrival at Louisiana helps from a depth standpoint, with the Ragin’ Cajuns having lost its three leaders, including junior guard Elfrid Payton.
“We’re excited to have Brian enrolled in school and become a member of the Ragin’ Cajuns,” Louisiana head coach Bob Marlin said in the release. “He gives us an athletic wing player with size and has played at a high level for the past three years.
“With the loss of our team captains from last year, Brian will have the chance to step in right away and be a leader of this team.”
In addition to Payton, Louisiana lost seniors Bryant Mbamalu and Eldridge Moore. The leading returnees in 2014-15 will be forward Shawn Long (18.6 ppg, 10.4 rpg) and guard Xavian Rimmer (8.8, 2.3).