UL-Lafayette’s Elfrid Payton keeps pushing

LAFAYETTE — Louisiana-Lafayette’s qualification for the NCAA Men’s Basketball tournament delayed a big decision for Elfrid Payton.

Perhaps while the Ragin’ Cajuns point guard is in San Antonio preparing for his team’s Friday second-round matchup against Creighton, he’ll have a couple of minutes to speak with Bluejays All-American Doug McDermott. Perhaps they can talk about the NBA draft and the pros and cons of leaving school early or staying to finish a stellar college career.

Cajuns fans are hoping the two get together, and not just on the court where the fifth-leading scorer in NCAA history (McDermott) will likely be guarded in many cases by the Sun Belt Conference’s Defensive Player of the Year (Payton).

McDermott was one of the rare ones last season, bypassing the allure of the NBA despite his status as a potential lottery pick to play his final collegiate season. The decision reaped benefits: McDermott was honored as National Player of the Year and Creighton is a No. 3 seed heading into Friday’s 2:10 p.m. meeting against the Ragin’ Cajuns.

UL-Lafayette fans are hoping Payton follows that lead, after a junior season in which the Gretna native and John Ehret graduate became the Cajuns’ unquestioned leader on both ends of the floor. He’s already been named to the Lou Henson All-America squad, which honors the nation’s top “mid-major” players, and to the NBCSports.com Mid-Major All-America squad.

The 6-foot-3 Payton said he hasn’t put much thought into what will happen after this season.

“I’m just focused on beating Creighton right now,” he said. “It was so much excitement, winning the conference championship and getting in (the NCAA’s), it’s something we all talked about and I wanted to help us do since the beginning of the year.

“Now I’ve got to come down from that and get back to getting ready for here ... I think we’ve got a good shot at this.”

Payton said UL-Lafayette’s league title would have no impact in his decision, but the fact the Cajuns are more prominent on the national radar this week should increase his visibility nationally.

He’s listed by most mock NBA drafts as a first-round projection for the June 26 selections. NBADraft.net has him as the No. 13 pick to the Milwaukee Bucks, and he’s slotted 20th to the Toronto Raptors by Bleacher Report, 27th to the San Antonio Spurs by NBA Draft Guru and 30th to the Spurs by Draft Express.

Should the last two picks by chance be correct, Payton would be getting a preview of the Spurs’ home arena, since it’s the site of the Cajuns’ first NCAA appearance since 2005.

“He obviously has a tough choice to make,” coach Bob Marlin said. “But he’s said all year that he was focused just on this season. He’ll have time and we’ll do everything we can to help him once we’re finished.

“He’s going to obviously play in the NBA at some point in time. I know and trust enough NBA general managers that we’ll sit down after this is over and get information from them to help him make a decision.”

Marlin, Payton and the Cajuns hope that finish doesn’t come too soon, even though 14th-seeded UL-Lafayette (23-11) is a big underdog to the Big East Conference’s Bluejays.

That end could have come last week at the Sun Belt Conference Tournament, but Payton played a huge role in the Cajuns’ three close wins that gave them the tournament title and the league’s automatic NCAA bid.

Payton was hampered by foul trouble and played only 26 minutes in the tournament opener against UT Arlington, getting only eight points but adding five rebounds, six assists and two blocks. He followed that with 23 and seven rebounds, nine assists and four steals against Western Kentucky, and 19 points and six assists in the title-game win over Georgia State.

More than anything else, Marlin said, Payton played a big role as a team leader at an awkward time in the tournament, before UL-Lafayette made its first appearance. The Cajuns were scheduled for an 8:30 p.m. quarterfinal against UTA on Friday night, but a four-overtime matchup between Arkansas State and Arkansas-Little Rock pushed the Cajun start time back to 10 p.m.

“We’re sitting in the locker room and I’m the only coach in there for that hour,” Marlin said. “To hear the camaraderie, the way Elfrid and Bryant (Mbamalu) stepped up and took charge of the locker room, it gave me an awesome feeling that we’re a team. It made me very proud as a coach.”

Marlin has promoted his team’s defensive potential all year, and that was borne out in the tournament when defensive stops at the final horn gave the Cajuns their semifinal and final wins. Both times, it was Payton front and center, forcing WKU guard and Slidell native T.J. Price into an awkward jumper and controlling the rebound at the buzzer of a 73-72 win in the semifinals. One day later, he did virtually the same thing to GSU’s Ryan Harrow in the final two seconds, after Harrow had bedeviled the Cajuns for 37 points.

Payton played all 85 minutes in those two games.

“We went small and switched a lot of screens,” Marlin said of the two defensive stops. “That’s a little bit scary, but you’ve got confidence that a guy like Elfrid is going to get there when you need him to be.”

Marlin wouldn’t say how much Payton would match up with McDermott on Friday, especially considering the five-inch height difference. But he did say that the two wouldn’t be far apart for at least part of the game.

“I’ve been searching for a way to slow (McDermott) down defensively and haven’t come up with anything,” he said. “The two of them are just different type players. But Elfrid’s our best defensive player. ... Elridge (Moore) is our best defender against bigger people, but McDermott’s a different type of player. There’s a possibility that we’ll match up some like that.”

Payton asked for the top defensive assignments midway through those games in the Sun Belt Tournament, against Price, Harrow and WKU forward George Fant, and Marlin was happy to oblige. Friday could be the same story.

“We’ll probably do some handoffs like we did in the conference tournament,” he said. “He wants their best guy.”

Payton averaged 19.1 per game in the regular season and 19.0 in Sun Belt Conference games, and led the Sun Belt in both assists (6.0) and steals (2.3). His assist total ranked him 14th nationally, and he was 18th in steals.

But it’s much more than numbers that define Payton, especially since shooting has not been one of his strengths over his three-year career. He did increase his field goal percentage to .511 after .448 and .475 marks in his first two years, but much of that came on his abilities to get to the rim.

Payton was only a 26 percent three-point shooter this year and a 61 percent free throw shooter. However, he has made five of his last 10 three-pointers when they were needed down the stretch.

“He’s a much better shooter than he was one or two years ago,” Marlin said. “He’s worked really hard there, and he’s shot the ball much better in practice over the last few weeks. Sometimes that doesn’t translate over into games, but he’s got a lot more confidence in his shot now.”