The plan was to hop on the bus and hightail it back to Lafayette in time for the selection show.
But when overtime plus other extended postgame duties after they won the Sun Belt tournament Sunday made that impossible, the Louisiana-Lafayette Ragin’ Cajuns called an audible, gathering at Walk-On’s in New Orleans to watch their name being called for the NCAA tournament.
They didn’t have to get too far through the bracket before it was revealed that UL-Lafayette will be playing Creighton on Friday in San Antonio. The accompanying cheers could be heard to the Texas line.
“It’s a great feeling being together (and) knowing that your name is coming up,” senior forward Elridge Moore said. “It was already a good day because we won the tournament. Now we get to enjoy this together.”
A few blocks up Poydras Street in the Smoothie King Center, Brad Stevens probably wished he could have joined the Cajuns in their sublime Selection Sunday.
Stevens guided two Butler teams to unlikely back-to-back national championship game appearances in 2010 and 2011 before following his dream to become coach of the Boston Celtics.
But what everyone knew would be a rebuilding job has been that and more. Following Sunday’s 121-120 overtime loss to the Pelicans, the NBA’s most storied franchise is 22-45. That’s the 26th-worst record in the 30-team league.
“I’m happy to be where I am,” said a nonetheless wistful-sounding Stevens, whose 2011 team advanced to the Final Four by beating Florida in the Smoothie King Center, back when it was still called New Orleans Arena. “But it’s a great day when you’re in and the worst when you’re not.
“My wife actually said today this is the day that she probably misses the most about college. You get people together, especially if you know you’re in the tournament, and you sit and you watch — just like everybody else does.”
Indeed, Selection Sunday may be sports’ greatest communal activity.
Think about it. As Stevens said, everybody — coaches, players and fans — sees the bracket revealed at the same time. And while folks might find different things to do during, say, the Super Bowl, in this one, nearly everyone is filling in their brackets.
And then we start filling them out.
“I haven’t done one in a while,” Stevens said. “But I’ll probably pick teams my friends are coaching.”
Stevens’ teams were two of several mid-majors to have a significant tournament impact in the one-and-done era, testament to the fact that teams with juniors and seniors often see experience overcome the talent gap.
Unbeaten Wichita State is a No. 1 seed this season, a truly significant occasion. Stevens’ Final Four teams were seeded fifth and eighth.
Not many people will be picking UL-Lafayette to get past Friday, much less eventually make its way to Arlington, Texas, for the Final Four.
But that’s OK with the Cajuns.
The school has earned its first NCAA tournament berth since 2005. And that appearance — plus the one in 2004 — was vacated by the NCAA because of an academic issue concerning a single player.
Since then, UL-Lafayette, a school generally considered a basketball stronghold, had not had a winning season until this one. So starved for success were the Cajuns that they hung a banner commemorating a Sun Belt Western Division co-championship in 2011 (the league has since done away with divisions) and were one-and-done in the conference tournament.
Last season, UL-Lafayette went 13-20, the third time it has lost that many games since 2007.
But the school stayed the course with coach Bob Marlin, and now they’re back in the Big Dance.
“We knew we had the right person for the job,” Athletic Director Scott Farmer said. “There were some unfortunate situations last season, but you could tell from how hard the kids played for him (that) they believed in what he was doing.”
They believed enough that the theme on the cover of the team’s media guide is “Our Mission is March.”
The Cajuns did go from 20 losses to 20 wins in the regular season. In the tournament, they survived a post-midnight finish against Texas-Arlington in Friday’s quarterfinals because of the four-overtime game that preceded it; got a late basket and stop by John Ehret grad Elfrid Payton to edge Western Kentucky 73-72 in the semifinals Saturday; and Sunday came from 11 down in the final five minutes and from four back in the final 45 seconds to force overtime, then prevailed by a point in OT when Georgia State’s Ryan Harrow, who had 37 points, missed from 4 feet at the end.
“Everybody still thinks of this as a basketball school,” said Marlin, who took Sam Houston State to the tournament in 2010. “But with the success we’ve been having in football and baseball and softball lately, we’re the ones who had to catch up.”
Now they have, at least on the conference level.
And at least one player Sunday sees UL-Lafayette going beyond that.
Junior guard Xavian Rimmer, the pride of Piney Woods, Miss., who had a career-high 27 points Sunday after going scoreless Saturday, said he usually doesn’t fill out a bracket, but he plans to do so this time — with the Cajuns going all the way.
“Of course,” he said. “You’ve got to believe in yourself.”
Chances are, on Selection Sunday, 67 other teams are doing exactly the same thing.