On March 16, in Orlando’s Amway Center, the Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns men’s basketball team faced their biggest hurdle of the season: the first round of the NCAA Tournament against the No. 4-ranked Tennessee Volunteers.
After the Cajuns surrendered an 18-point lead, junior forward and Lou Henson National Player of the Year Jordan Brown’s brilliance almost fueled a comeback but fell just short, 55–58.
After the buzzer sounded, Cajuns senior guard and Lafayette native Jalen Dalcourt made himself available for a short post-game interview. He reflected on the season and talked about what it meant to him: “It felt good knowing that we kind of built the culture, being from Louisiana, so that’s always nice, and just sad to go. Know what I’m saying?”
This wasn’t something you wouldn’t expect for this Cajuns squad: they’ve been the type to wear their emotions on their sleeves and keep their family and fans involved all season. Candid interviews, raucous locker room moments and community outreach have all made this 2022-23 season a win not only on the court, but also in further developing the program’s identity.
Another example of this culture shift had manifested a week earlier, as time wound down in the Sun Belt Conference Championship game on March 6.
In Pensacola, facing the South Alabama Jaguars’ fierce defense, up just one point with seconds left, Louisiana was in desperate need of a score. Sophomore guard Themus Fulks brought the ball up the floor with a chance to put the game away. “[Jordan] Brown’s gotta get a touch,” the announcer matter-of-factly chirped.
Fulks drove into Jaguars’ defender Judah Brown’s chest, turned his back to the basket and put the game in Dalcourt’s hands — the same hands that had committed a turnover the prior possession.
The legacy of a Cajuns season that stands among the best in program history — second in wins, second in win percentage and an undefeated home record — potentially hung in the balance at this moment. Would it go by the wayside like the 2017-18 season?
Dalcourt rose up for a 10-foot jump shot and buried it to put the Cajuns up 67–64.
When asked what was going through his mind on the play, Dalcourt responded, “Nothing really. I knew they was gonna be on JB [Jordan Brown], so as soon as my man turned his head I cut towards the ball, and I found an open spot in the lane, and I just shot and it went in.”
The team would hold on to seal the win and punch their tickets to their first Men’s Tournament appearance since 2014. In the commotion of the celebration, Dalcourt ran to embrace his mother, then immediately grabbed his phone to stream the moment on Instagram Live.
After the March 16 loss, Fulks also spoke on the future of the team saying, “I came here to win championships. Every conversation I had with Coach Marlin before I got here, it was about winning championships, so I mean we’re losing a few guys, but I mean it’s bigger roles for other guys now, and it’s time for us to take over and win some more championships.”
Fulks would later enter the transfer portal on March 2, but remove any doubts about his commitment with a simple tweet two days later, stating, “Run it back.”
The importance of the 2022-23 season was threefold: viewership, commitment and culture were all expanded. Sportspromedia.com reported that the CBS broadcast of the Louisiana-Tennessee matchup garnered 3.48 million viewers; Fulks, Brown and the rest of the team running it back will give fresh players time to develop; and the leadership and staff can give space to the newfound attitude and confidence of the unit.
Ultimately, the overall direction of the team is largely in Brown’s hands. Either he’ll transfer and new talent will have to be brought in to remain competitive, or he’ll stay, and the same core with this year’s cohesion and experience will be able to run it back.