The last time UL’s basketball team took an exhibition trip abroad, it went to Spain in 2013 — and capped off that season going to the NCAA Tournament.
Compared to when current NBA players Elfrid Payton and Shawn Long both were on the roster back then, Ragin’ Cajuns coach Bob Marlin hopes his club’s travel this month will pay similar dividends.
UL will play a series of exhibition games next week in Cuba, the small Caribbean island country that has been under Communist Party rule since 1959.
Marlin said the Cajuns will arrive Monday in the Cuban capital city of Havana and play three games starting Tuesday, facing both the Cuban National Team and the Cuban Junior National Team.
“I don’t know much about their national teams except that I was told they look good, they’re big, but they don’t have game experience,” said Marlin, whose Cajuns return four of last season’s starters in Bryce Washington, Frank Bartley, Justin Miller and Johnathan Stove.
“They have a hard time getting games,” Marlin added. “So there’s usually a lack of experience there, but some good, young talent.”
The Cuban National Team is ranked 31st in the world by FIBA, basketball’s international governing body.
Cuba won the bronze medal at the 1972 Summer Olympics, but has had limited experience in major international tournaments since then, including a 10th-place showing at the 2015 FIBA Americas Championship.
The Cajuns also will be involved in some clinics while in Cuba.
But this trip is about much more than basketball and even the bonding that is bound to occur.
Upon their arrival, the Cajuns will tour the country’s largest factory that produces Cuba’s famed cigars.
Both players and coaches will take salsa dancing lessons.
Politically, they’ll be exposed to a poverty-stricken nation few Americans have been — one that in many regards still lives likes it’s in an era from many decades ago.
To prepare for their travel, Marlin suggested, Cajun players were braced for the possibility of shortages in everything from ice to full toilet paper rolls.
“It’s gonna be a different trip for these guys,” the Cajun coach said, “and I think it will make them appreciate things.”
Relations between the United States and Cuba, which had been severed in the early 1960s during the Cold War, were restored diplomatically under the administration of former U.S. President Barack Obama in July 2015.
Planning for this trip started when Obama still was in office.
Current U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration has implemented changes including restriction on some travel by Americans to Cuba, but the Cajuns’ group trip is still permitted.
“Everything was great at the time,” Marlin said with reference to when UL basketball operations director Mike Murphy first proposed visiting Cuba as a team, “but it’s changed in the last several weeks.
“So this is an opportunity we’re super-excited about, and I think it’s gonna be great to go in there and tour the country.”
UL will become just the second NCAA men’s program in quite some time to make an exhibition journey to Cuba.
Last year, fellow Sun Belt Conference-member Coastal Carolina took the same trip, which is organized by Sports Tours International.
The tour — which is permitted by the NCAA and allows for the Cajuns to get in a few extra practices — comes at a time UL also will have transfers from three Power 5 programs becoming eligible.
Malik Marquetti (Southern Cal), JaKeenan Gant (Missouri) and Marcus Stroman (South Carolina) — all expected to play key roles this season — sat out 2016-17 in accordance with NCAA transfer rules.
The group will get another chance to come together via international travel in November, when UL plays three games — including an opener against Iowa — in the Cayman Islands Classic.
The Cajuns open their season Nov. 10 at Ole Miss, and play their first regular-season home game Nov. 14 against Louisiana College.
That’s the beginning of a long season Marlin hopes can again be extended into the NCAA Tournament.
“The timing couldn’t be better,” he said of next week’s trip.
“The (transfers) are ready to play and put the jerseys on. … They’re champing at the bit to get out and compete with the guys, with the whole team.”
Tim Buckley, The Daily Advertiser
Aug. 1, 2017