The Billiken men’s basketball team will tip off their season on Nov. 9 against South Carolina Upstate, an opponent who, despite its lack of name recognition, is still one to watch.
Spartan coach, Eddie Payne, won the Hugh Durham Award as the nation’s top mid-major coach after he led the Spartans to a 21-13 finish in 2011-12, good for a share of second in the Atlantic Sun and a berth in the CollegeInsider.com Tournament (CIT). With its 21 wins last season, Upstate became just the second team to record at least 20 wins in its first full season of full-Division I eligibility.
They enter this season with all five starters from last year’s team, including reigning conference Player of the Year, Torrey Craig. Craig (6-6, 215 pounds), who was also an Associated Press All-American honorable mention last season, averaged 16.4 points per game and pulled in nearly eight rebounds per game. The dual-threat forward has the ability to beat defenders both off the dribble (43.5-percent shooter from the field) and from behind the arc (34.9-3PT%).
While Craig is the centerpiece of their starting five, Upstate boasts a strong supporting cast, including last year’s A-Sun Freshman of the Year Ty Greene (6-3, 185 pounds). The sophomore guard finished second on the team in scoring with 11.4 PPG, earning him a spot on the preseason all-conference team heading into this season.
Sophomore guard Mario Blessing leads the Spartans defensively. The fans’ pick for A-Sun preseason Defensive Player of the Year, Blessing (6-4, 205 pounds) recorded 16 steals and pulled in 52 boards last season.
Despite having an advantage in depth and on defense, the Billikens will face a significant size disadvantage Friday night.
Craig and junior forward Ricardo Glenn (7.3 RPG) create a two-headed monster on the glass for the Spartans, who averaged over 37 boards per game last season, good for 48th in the nation.
In terms of style of play, Upstate utilizes an up-tempo style, similar to what SLU will encounter later this season with VCU. Just as the case will be later this season when the Rams travel to Chaifetz Arena, it will be imperative for the Billikens to dictate the tempo Friday evening. The Spartans love to take shots from behind the arc (615 3-pointers attempted last year), utilizing swift ball movement to create open looks.
Of course, it’s easier to throw up over 18 treys per game with a player like Craig patrolling the offensive boards. Defensively, the Spartans’ in-your-face style forces opponents into taking bad shots and gradually wears them down.
Upstate is not the typical “pushover” opponent that teams schedule to open the season. Their size and talented frontcourt has them among the favorites to win the A-Sun. That being said, this is absolutely a game that SLU should win. They have a significant advantage defensively and are much deeper in terms of dependable shooters.
If the Spartans manage to meet, or even exceed expectations, and build on their successes from last season, Friday’s game will give the Billikens’ strength of schedule rating a significant boost.Brian Haenchen covers the Saint Louis University men’s basketball team for The University News. You can follow him on Twitter (@Brian_Haenchen) or email him (firstname.lastname@example.org).