Night Line: In Wake of Majerus Passing On, His Billikens Push OnPosted by BHayes on January 11th, 2013
Bennet Hayes is a regular contributor for RTC. You can find him @HoopsTraveler on Twitter. Night Line runs on weeknights during the season, highlighting a major storyline development from that day’s games.
No team endured a more difficult first month of the season than the Saint Louis Billikens. November was a struggle on the court, as they listlessly stumbled to a 3-3 beginning. Not the opening that the preseason Atlantic 10 favorites had hoped for, but all that mattered little on December 2 when news came that former coach Rick Majerus had passed away. The controversial Majerus’ legacy is still being sorted out, but what cannot be denied is the SLU basketball revival he oversaw. More importantly, as he had done at each of his previous coaching stops, the charismatic Majerus profoundly impacted many of his players’ lives along the way. His passing left this Saint Louis basketball season at a crossroads; a disappointing year could easily head into complete freefall, or a core that Majerus brought to SLU could use their old coach’s passing as inspiration for a turnaround. Nine wins and zero losses later, it appears quite clear which direction the Billikens have chosen.
Majerus’ death will be a motivator for St. Louis right up until the moment their season ends, but there are practical reasons for the turnaround as well. For starters, none of the three early season losses look especially bad anymore, now that Santa Clara has surprisingly continued its winning ways (12-5 on the year) with the Broncos even giving Duke a scare at Cameron Indoor Stadium at the end of 2012. The December schedule also relented somewhat for the Billikens, as their next six games came in the friendly confines of Chaifetz Arena, and only one pitted St. Louis against a top-200 team (Valparaiso). Six straight wins had to help their confidence before the Billikens’ next real test, and SLU responded against a solid New Mexico team, delivering a resounding 60-46 New Years’ Eve victory. Also making things easier against the Lobos was the return of senior guard Kwamain Mitchell, who had made his season debut just three days earlier. Mitchell may not have been his sharpest self against New Mexico (or even tonight against UMass), but SLU head man Jim Crews has to feel better with his star player back on the floor.
As Mitchell continues to ease himself back into the lineup and the Atlantic 10 wins begin to accumulate, preseason expectations will return quicker to fans’ minds. Advancement past the round of 32, where last year’s Billiken squad saw its season end, may be difficult, but there is still a lot to like about this SLU club. Not counting Mitchell and his four games back, five players average at least seven points a game, with Mike McCall leading the way at 12 PPG. Offensive balance is not atypical of a Majerus-constructed team, but his fingerprints are everywhere on the defensive side of the ball. St. Louis is 28th nationally in defensive efficiency, having proven especially proficient in forcing turnovers and keeping opponents off the offensive glass, the latter a Majerus trademark. Additionally, the Billikens rank ninth nationally in limiting three point attempts, another point of emphasis for Majerus and a category SLU led the country in a season ago.
The Billikens are a team with a capital T, and both the late Majerus and new head man Crews deserve the credit for that. Despite Mitchell’s talent, this is no roster oozing with innate ability; the Billikens get by with tough, heady play on both ends of the court, perhaps explained by a rotation filled with nearly all upperclassmen. Their lack of dynamic talent would lead one to believe that the cap on this team lies somewhere around the second or third round of the NCAA Tournament, but the Billikens’ grinding style will surely make them an unpopular early-round opponent in the Dance, provided their ongoing upward trajectory continues. Also don’t forget that this team is now clearly playing for something bigger than themselves. Last time I checked, if it’s March, you do not want Rick Majerus motivating the team on the other bench, whether he’s physically there on the sidelines or not.