The Saint Louis University Billikens are no strangers to adversity. This group of upperclassmen has endured injuries to key players, controversial suspensions and even a postseason snub following the 2009-10 regular season. But as they enter the 2012-13 season, perhaps their most anticipated since the turn of the century, the Billikens must forge ahead without the one constant they had to lean on over the past five years—head coach Rick Majerus.
2011-12 In Review
Twenty-five year coaching veteran Majerus picked up his 500th career win last season as part of a historical season for SLU that saw the Billikens grab the 76 Classic championship, crack the Top 25 for the first time since 1993-94 and clinch their first NCAA Tournament berth since 2000.
Led by Brian Conklin and juniors Kwamain Mitchell and Cody Ellis, SLU, once a relative unknown, finally earned the opportunity to showcase their stingy defensive style on the national stage- and they did not disappoint.
After dismantling Memphis in round two, the Billikens advanced to take on the top-seeded Michigan State Spartans. While MSU was the heavy favorite, the matchup pitted two basketball stalwarts against each other, Majerus and Michigan State coach Tom Izzo, in a game that did not disappoint. Over their combined 46 years of head coaching experience, Majerus and Izzo had won 927 games, reached the NCAA Tournament 25 times, played in three National Championship games and garnered eight conference coach of the year awards.
“His teams are always tough, well disciplined,” Izzo said of Majerus. “They don’t make a lot of mistakes. They don’t beat themselves. They’re very solid and fundamental.”
“I respect Izzo because he’s a self-made coach,” Majerus said during a pregame press conference. “He’s demanding. He’s fair. He’s the kind of guy you could get together with and talk ball.”
The love affair ended there though, as Majerus promised to “muck it up” in the seemingly lopsided matchup. He made good on his promise, never allowing Michigan State to pull away, despite having four players score in double figures. In the end, however, the Billikens’ poor shooting performance (35.3%-FG, 28%-3PT), a problem that had plagued them at times all year, caught up with them, bringing their season to an end.
SLU finished the 2011-12 campaign at 26-8, one win shy of the school record set in 1988-89.
“He’s a great coach. I couldn’t imagine playing for a better coach, a better person,” Conklin said as he took off a SLU jersey for the last time. “He’s really brought Saint Louis basketball to where it is right now, bringing in great guys.”
The Loss of a Legend
The Billikens’ success had fans and national pundits alike buzzing about their prospects heading into the 2012-13 season. After five years of recruiting and rebuilding, Majerus finally had the players he wanted and needed to make his system succeed. Then, on Aug. 24, news came out that Majerus would be unable to coach his finished product to its crescendo.
The loss of Majerus stung, especially for Kwamain Mitchell, who was among the first players he recruited in 2008. Despite his absence, the fifth-year senior understands the importance of focusing on the task at hand.
“Everybody knows it’s going to be hard at times, but last year, there were some games where Coach wasn’t there and we put it away with…everyone being there as a unit,” Mitchell said. “For me, Coach was basically like a personal friend… We’re going to miss him, but we still have to move on.”
Enter: Jim Crews
SLU wasted no time in replacing Majerus, immediately naming Jim Crews interim head coach for the upcoming season. Crews, who joined Majerus’ staff prior to last season, fancied himself the “keeper of the candy store,” but emphasized the importance of continuing player development.
“We’ve got really good kids. They’re working hard and they’re good players,” the 24-year coaching veteran said. “Each season brings new challenges and that doesn’t mean we’re going to be good this year, but we certainly have high expectations to be good.”
Crews, who has been a part of 14 NCAA Tournaments as a player, assistant coach and head coach, acknowledged the importance of last year’s postseason experience for the Billikens, but cautioned against complacency.
“I think it gives the guys the knowledge that they are capable of really doing well. Hopefully, they’ll also understand the slim margin of error that you have to get to that point,” he said. “This year everyone thinks we’re good. We’re not any good today, but hopefully we get a little bit better today, a little bit better tomorrow and get to be good, that’s part of the process. You don’t start off with 25 wins, you start off with zero.”
While Majerus will not be on the sidelines this season, his imprint on the program remains.
“There are a lot of us who have been in his system for a couple of years and know it like the back of our hands now,” Ellis said. “So, even with him not being here I think he’s still going to make a huge impact on this team.”
“These kids have invested in each other and they’ve invested in this system of play,” Crews said. “Offensively, even though we have the same philosophy… We’re going to do Coach’s, because that’s what these kids have invested in.”
Backcourt: Filling in for Mitchell
The Billikens were faced with another challenge just two practices into the season when Mitchell sustained a broken bone in his left foot after a teammate stepped on it as he was changing directions. While the injury is not expected to be a season-ender, it will keep the senior guard out for at least six weeks. His absence means that SLU’s depth and experience at guard will be tested, starting with juniors Jordair Jett and Mike McCall Jr.
At 6-1, 215 lbs., Jett’s physical style of play offers a different dimension to SLU’s backcourt. Unlike his fellow guards, the Minnesota native rarely fires from behind the arc, working instead to establish a presence under the basket. Last season, Jett pulled down 95 rebounds (71 defensive) and found his way to the free throw line 96 times. A member of the A-10’s preseason All-Defensive team, he finished third on the team in both steals (39) and assists (71). While he cut down significantly on turnovers (46 last season compared to 77 the year before), Jett’s points per game output took a hit as well. With Mitchell out of the lineup, the Bills will look to Jett to contribute more on offense.
“[Offense] has been my main focus during the offseason,” Jett said. “I have to be more aggressive now that [Kwamain] is out for a while. I have to be more of a scorer and a defender.”
McCall, who in 2010-11 became the first Billiken freshman to lead the team in scoring since Larry Hughes in 1997-98, struggled through the first half of last season, averaging just over five points per game. The Chicago native stormed back during conference play, however, averaging 8.6 points per conference game and breaking into the starting lineup for the final 13 games of the season. He also established himself defensively, recording 41 steals, second only to Mitchell for most on the team.
While the tandem of Mitchell and McCall proved to be effective for the Billikens (combined 22.9 PPG over last 11 games), the team will rely on McCall to step up and fill the scoring void left by his teammate.
“We don’t ask guys to be something they’re not,” assistant coach Tanner Bronson said. “In Kwam’s absence, we have other guys who can do certain things and we’re going to ask them to do it. Nobody can try to be Kwam. Let Kwam be Kwam, Mike be Mike, Jordair be Jordair and I think we’ll be all right as long as everybody just shoulders a little more of the load.”
Although Jett and McCall figure to shoulder most of the extra minutes in the backcourt, freshman Keith Carter will be expected to step in and have an immediate impact with the Billikens. Carter (6-0, 175 lbs.) garnered 2012 first-team All-State honors from the Associated Press and Chicago Tribune after he averaged 20 points and five assists per game as a senior at Proviso East. The 2012 Mr. Basketball runner-up (Chicago Tribune) drew high praise from Majerus, who said Carter was the best point guard he had recruited since he landed Andre Miller at Utah.
“With Kwam being out, I definitely think [Carter] is someone that’s going to see some minutes this year and he’s got to be ready for it,” Bronson said. “It’ll take him some time to develop like it does for most younger players, but he listens very well, he works hard, he understands the game. He does the little things very well and that’s what we’re asking of him.”
This glut of backcourt talent will attempt to remedy the scoring woes that proved costly for SLU last season in key games.
Outside of a 163-point eruption over the final two games of the 76 Classic, the Billikens topped the 80-point mark just once, averaging 69.2 points per game. While opponents were limited to 41.4% shooting from the field, SLU managed to hit just 44.9% of its shots.
“[A] .45 [shooting percentage] in this day in age is actually not [bad]—I prefer it to be higher—but, in reality that’s not bad,” Crews said. “Our free throw percentage, they did a good job getting to the line and that was better than it was a year before, so that was a good thing. ”
Frontcourt: Replacing a Leader
While the loss of Mitchell in the backcourt is temporary, SLU will be searching for a permanent way to cope with the loss of last season’s other star, forward Brian Conklin.
The loss of Conklin’s 13.9 points per game will hurt, but the team is more than poised to make up for it, especially in the backcourt and from beyond the arc. While the Billikens were able to stick to their defensive game plan against Michigan State last season, an inability to execute and hit key shots proved to be their undoing. To rectify this, big men Rob Loe and Cody Ellis will be relied on for high-percentage shots from the paint as well as their more familiar positions behind the three-point line.
Perhaps the biggest question mark going into the season is who will fill the void left by Conklin down low. Dwayne Evans will be back to man his position on the blocks and snatch every rebound that comes in his vicinity, but the question of whom will play alongside Evans down lown remains. Ellis and Loe both practiced with their respective national teams over the summer, but only time will tell how their inside games have developed.
“The big thing this year is me and Rob Loe, usually the shooters, working inside with Conklin gone,” Ellis said.
In addition, multiple bench players from last season, including sophomores Grandy Glaze and 7-footer John Manning, and senior captain Corey Remekun will fight to see their minutes increase this season.
While on paper the Billikens’ non-conference schedule does not look overly formidable, it does feature seven teams who qualified for postseason tournaments and four who won their respective conference titles.
The Billikens open play on Nov. 9 at home against USC Upstate, but fans’ eyes are already looking ahead to the CBE Classic the week after the opener. If SLU can get past first-round opponent Texas A&M, it will likely face last year’s NCAA runner-up, Kansas. The tournament will put an early national spotlight on the Billikens as they search for an identity in the absence of Mitchell. While the rest of the non-conference schedule is lacking in Kansas-like basketball heavyweights, it presents an equally tough challenge to the Billikens, who will look to repeat last season’s early success when they jumped out to a 12-1 start. The schedule is highlighted by a visit to Washington and a home tilt with New Mexico on New Year’s Eve. In between, though, are a plethora of games with pesky mid-major opponents like Valparaiso, Southern Illinois, and Loyola Marymount, last year’s evil witch that ruined any hopes SLU had of a sustained national ranking.
The mediocre non-conference schedule will provide a much-needed breather, because once the Atlantic 10 season arrives, it’ll be utter mayhem in Midtown. With the addition of steadfast programs Virginia Commonwealth and Butler, the A-10 is a sixteen-team clusterfuck of basketball prowess. The Ratings Percentage Index, a key metric in determining the NCAA tournament field, was enamored with the Billikens last year, consistently placing them in the top 30. With a similar non-conference schedule and even stronger conference, the love fest seems poised to continue.
Despite the absence of Majerus and Mitchell, the Billikens have maintained the same mindset they have through all the challenges they’ve faced over the years: just take it one day at a time.
“My parents taught me a long time ago, ‘you gotta learn from your past, live in the present and just kind of peek in the future,’ ” Crews said. “These guys did a good job last year of just kind of going day-by-day. They didn’t get ahead of themselves.”
As is the case when a new coach takes over, Crews and the players are still working on their communication. Fortunately for the Billikens, games against South Carolina Upstate and Santa Clara will give them an opportunity to get on the same page before their CBE Classic opener against Texas A&M.
“I think [learning Crews’ terminology] was a little bit of an adjustment for our guys because they have called it a certain way for a long time,” Bronson said. “At some point, you come to some sort of middle ground… It is a transition process.”
While the players may still be adjusting to their new head coach, all parties involved understand the importance of shutting out the external noise and focusing on the task at hand.
“Since we have experience, we kind of know how it goes,” Mitchell said. “Me, Mike, Jordair, all those guys keep the team stable and humble because last year, we were picked seventh and we ended up second in the conference. So, we just have to stay humble and keep working hard.”
“The more you ignore the noise- those teams do the best,” Crews said. “There’s always noise in sports…You have to really concentrate on what’s at hand because a lot of times you can get away from the core things of what makes you good because of the noise.”