#rushthetrip Day Eight: In Every Regard, Boise State’s Potential On Full Display

Posted by Bennet Hayes on February 13th, 2014

RTC columnist Bennet Hayes (@hoopstraveler) is looking for the spirit of college basketball as he works his way on a two-week tour of various venues around the West. For more about his trip, including his itinerary and previous stops on his journey, check out the complete series here.

It’s been a tough year on the hardwood in Boise. A series of close defeats – many littered with critical late-game Bronco mistakes – has derailed a season that began with unusually high expectations. As protectors of the famed blue turf, the Boise faithful aren’t strangers to their school beginning an athletic season with grand aspirations, but rarely has such hope accompanied the basketball program. When I planned my trip a month ago, Wednesday’s matchup with New Mexico looked to have both MW title and NCAA Tournament implications. Unfortunately, upon arrival at Taco Bell Arena last night, said implications existed only for the visiting Lobos.

Given The Emerging Basketball Program And A Proven Fan Base Behind Them, Taco Bell Arena May See Fuller Days Ahead

Given The Emerging Basketball Program And A Proven Fan Base Behind Them, Taco Bell Arena May See Fuller Days Ahead

I should admit here to being a Boise apologist. I have long been fascinated with the school’s football program (like many across the country), and was also probably higher than most on the potential for this year’s basketball team. Leon Rice has the program heading in the right direction, and it seemed possible that the football team’s success could help propel the basketball team into a more regular relationship with the Big Dance. But for now, that notion remains a fantasy. The Broncos have never won an NCAA Tournament game (San Jose State is the only other MW team to share this distinction), and rarely (if ever) generate the fan support to sell out the 13,000 seat Taco Bell Arena.

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O26 Game of the Week: VCU Visits Saint Louis in Defensive Clash

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on February 12th, 2014

Each week the O26 microsite will run down the biggest upcoming game of the week as well as a handful of others to keep an eye on.

Virginia Commonwealth (19-5) at Saint Louis (22-2) – 2:00 PM ET, ESPN2, Saturday

This game punctuates what could be a decisive week in the Atlantic 10. If VCU can take down George Washington on Wednesday night, it will claim sole possession of second place and remain just two games back of Saint Louis heading into Saturday. A victory would pull Shaka Smart’s club within a game of the top spot, setting the stage for a crucial rematch on March 1st; a loss would give the Billikens an overwhelming advantage over the rest of the league, nearly guaranteeing a second-straight regular season title. And conference implications aside, this game offers each team—both stingy-defensive units with second-weekend potential—the opportunity to notch a resume-bolstering victory just one month out from Selection Sunday. A lot will be at stake in Chaifetz Arena.

VCU travels to Saint Louis for an enormous Atlantic 10 tilt. (Jeff Roberson/AP)

VCU travels to Saint Louis for an enormous Atlantic 10 tilt. (Jeff Roberson/AP)

If last year was any indication, Saint Louis should have no problem handling VCU and its HAVOC defense, which is predicated on forcing turnovers and scoring points in transition. In their only regular season meeting of 2013, the Billikens—who run a slow-paced, ball-control offense—broke the Rams’ press time after time down the floor, committing just eight turnovers and getting countless easy looks under the basket. In turn, VCU was unable to get anything in the way of transition buckets—a huge problem against a dominant half-court defense adept at taking away the three point shot, the Rams’ next-best scoring method. Saint Louis coasted to a 14-point home victory in that one and validated it a month later in the A-10 Championship game, again staving off VCU’s pressure on its way to claiming the league’s postseason crown.

So, then, what hope could the Rams possibly have this year, on the road against virtually the same team? Well, for starters, the Billikens have been skating on the thin ice in recent weeks. Three of their last five games have been one possession contests in the final minute of regulation, including an overtime home victory over then-winless George Mason. They won all three—part of a current 16-game winning streak—but showed slight vulnerabilities on defense and at times struggled to score. If Saint Louis continues playing with fire, odds say it will eventually get burned. Plus, this season’s Billikens aren’t quite the offensive team they were a year ago (scoring at a modestly lower rate), and VCU is even better on defense. Anytime a middle-of-the-pack offense meets an elite defense, the former is probably going to have trouble at various points in the game. Of course, the same can be said for VCU’s offense and Saint Louis’ defense, but the point remains: the Rams certainly have a chance. And if they do manage to pull one out on the road, the A-10 will become a whole lot more interesting.

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O26 Resume Review: St. Joe’s, Dayton, BYU, Southern Miss & Boise State…

Posted by Adam Stillman on February 12th, 2014

There wasn’t a whole lot of movement in the O26 bubble picture this past week. We’ve seen teams projected safely in the field continue to cement that status — Wichita State, San Diego State, Saint Louis, etc. — and another couple squads with a gaudy records but subpar SOS and RPI numbers take themselves completely out of the at-large discussion — Harvard and Green Bay. While there weren’t many teams that picked up resume-making wins last week — most tread water or broke a little above even — we also didn’t see all that many teams exacerbate things with horrible losses. So let’s check out who helped and hurt themselves in this week’s O26 resume review:

Helped

Saint Joseph’s (16-7, 6-3 Atlantic 10)

Saint Joseph’s biggest week of the season brought mixed results. The Hawks fell flat against Saint Louis in a 65-49 loss last Wednesday before rebounding with a solid 69-62 victory against Virginia Commonwealth on Saturday. A sweep might have put Saint Joseph’s in the NCAA Tournament field, but a sweep the other way probably would have signaled lights out on the Hawks’ at-large aspirations. The week’s split saw Saint Joseph’s RPI jump from #53 to #46 in seven day’s time. The Hawks are sitting squarely on the fence in the bubble conversation. The Bracket Matrix places the Hawks as the second team in the First Four Out category. ESPN’s Joe Lunardi, CBS’ Jerry Palm and Sports Illustrated’s Michael Beller have Saint Joseph’s currently out of the field as well, while Yahoo’s Brad Evans has the Hawks as the last team in the field. A home game with Dayton and road tilt at George Washington highlight the remaining slate. Ken Pomeroy, however, projects Saint Joseph’s to lose four more regular-season games, which would certainly leave the Hawks in the NIT.

Projected seed for now: Out

Dayton (16-8, 4-5 Atlantic 10)

Dayton is still alive for an at-large bid (AP Photo/Eugene Tanner)

Dayton is still alive for an at-large bid (AP Photo/Eugene Tanner)

The Flyers are back on track, winning three straight games. While this past week’s victories came against George Mason and Saint Bonaventure, a pair of teams in the bottom half of the A-10, it’s just important that Dayton keeps winning and doesn’t suffer any bad losses. Mission accomplished this week. It will be more of the same in the near future with Rhode Island, La Salle and Duquesne dotting the upcoming schedule. Then comes the stretch that will ultimately determine Dayton’s fate — a closing stretch with Saint Joseph’s, Massachusetts, SLU and Richmond. The RPI sits at #60, up five spots from a week ago. KenPom has Dayton losing to Saint Joseph’s and SLU but winning the rest of its league games. That would put the Flyers at 21-10 overall and 9-7 in the A-10. That might be enough to earn Dayton a bid.

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Checking In On… the Mountain West

Posted by Andrew Murawa (@amurawa) on February 11th, 2014

We’re in the back stretch of conference play and, as we have expected for the past couple months, we now have clear separation between the top two teams in the conference – San Diego State and New Mexico, which have combined for only one conference loss – and the rest of the pack. Nevada dropped a pair of road games; UNLV lost on the road; and Wyoming dropped a pair as well, giving the second place Lobos a three-game lead in the loss column over the third-place team. Even more clearly, this looks like a two-bid league come March, barring a big surprise in the conference tournament. The third highest-rated team in the RPI is Boise State, checking in at #68 following a heartbreaker against the Aztecs.

A Dagger Of A Three From Dwayne Polee Leaves Boise State In Dire Straits (Darin Oswald, Idaho Statesman)

A Dagger Of A Three From Dwayne Polee Leaves Boise State In Dire Straits. (Darin Oswald, Idaho Statesman)

Let’s play a fun game of “let’s pretend” and say that the Broncos catch fire, win out in conference play and get to the championship game in Vegas before bowing out to either San Diego State or New Mexico. Never mind that this team hasn’t shown any indication that its capable of that type of streak, but that would put them at 24-10 with a win over New Mexico in the regular season and a win over the Lobos again (although possibly San Diego State) in the MW Tournament semifinal. That would give them two wins over New Mexico as by far their best wins of the season, with Utah – currently ranked #103 in RPI – ranks as their next best win. Not exactly the resume of an NCAA Tournament team.

Team of the Week

San Diego State – In a week where three conference schools scored a road win as part of a 2-0 week, the Aztecs had the most impressive road win by going to Boise State, roaring back from a 13-point deficit in the middle of the second half, then getting a big go-ahead three-pointer from Dwayne Polee with five seconds left to break the Broncos’ spirit. The Aztecs followed that up by coming home and handing it to Nevada in workmanlike fashion while in the process tying a school-record 20-game winning streak.

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O26 Storylines: Boise State, Indiana State and Southern Miss…

Posted by Adam Stillman on February 7th, 2014

I’m beginning to think nobody wants a bid to the NCAA Tournament. At least not any of the O26 teams that are considered on the bubble. A couple more teams seemingly withdrew their names from consideration this past week, and that’s the laser focus of this week’s O26 Storylines post. While Wichita State’s ongoing quest for perfection is a no-brainer for storyline of the week, we already wrote about the Shockers here and here. And even though Sacramento State delivered maybe the most improbable finish of the season, it really doesn’t have any meaningful ramifications.

Are Boise State’s at-large NCAA Tournament chances gone?

Boise State is just about out of chances for an at-large bid.

Boise State is just about out of chances for an at-large bid. (AP)

Yes. It’s the Mountain West automatic bid or bust for the Broncos. Boise State (15-8, 5-5 MW) let a golden opportunity slip through its hands on Wednesday night, coming up just short in its upset bid against San Diego State. The Broncos led by as many as 14 points in the second half before finally capitulating when Dwayne Polee drained a three-pointer with five seconds left to give the Aztecs a 67-65 advantage (the final margin). That was Boise State’s best shot at a resume-making win, and the Broncos blew it. They are quickly running out of opportunities. Only a home game against New Mexico on February 12 constitutes a shot at a quality win. While the Broncos’ aren’t hindered by any horrible losses — the worst being against UNLV and its #102 RPI — Boise State can’t boast any quality wins either. Their best win is over #118 RPI Utah. Yikes. Even a win against New Mexico won’t be enough to save the Broncos. They’ve just missed out on too many chances. Just look at the list. Kentucky, Iowa State, San Diego State (twice), New Mexico, Saint Mary’s. Five of those losses were by single digits, including three that were by four or fewer points. If Boise State can’t win the MW Tournament, the Broncos will have to go down as one of the most disappointing teams of the season.

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O26 Resume Review: VCU & St. Joe’s Rising, Toledo & St. Mary’s Falling…

Posted by Adam Stillman on February 5th, 2014

Let’s be honest. It wasn’t a good week for O26 teams with NCAA Tournament at-large hopes. In fact, it was downright awful. It’s almost as if a few of these teams don’t want to go dancing after all. There certainly are spots to be had. Even with just 36 at-large berths handed out this season thanks to the addition of the American, an abundance of middling high-major teams has left the door open for some strong O26 candidates. They just haven’t taken advantage, and this week says it all. Let’s see who helped and hurt themselves this week.

Helped

VCU (18-4)

VCU is looking more and more like an NCAA Tournament team.

VCU is looking more and more like an NCAA Tournament team.

Is VCU even a bubble team at this point? Probably not. The Rams are probably safely into the field barring an unexpected collapse. VCU’s RPI rose from #35 to #28 as of Monday after wins against Fordham and fellow A-10 bubble-dweller Richmond this past week. The Rams have won five straight games and are off to one of their best overall starts in school history. A tricky game at surging St. Joseph’s awaits Saturday, but VCU is most definitely trending upward right now.

Projected seed for now: #10

BYU (15-9). It amazes me that a WCC team with nine losses is still in the at-large conversation, but that demonstrates just how weak the bubble is this season. Don’t we say this every year, though? BYU capped a strong week with a pair of double-figure wins against Pacific and Saint Mary’s, boosting its RPI from #49 to #45 in the process. That’s pretty much right on the fence. The Cougars need to keep taking care of business during the next couple weeks before the make-or-break portion of the schedule — at Saint Mary’s on February 15 and home to Gonzaga on February 20. Win both of those and the Cougars just might be dancing next month.

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O26 Game of the Week: Indiana State Looks to Ruin Perfection

Posted by Tommy Lemoine on February 5th, 2014

Each week the O26 microsite will run down the biggest upcoming game of the week as well as a handful of others to keep an eye on. 

Wichita State (23-0) at Indiana State (14-5) – 8:05 PM ET, Wednesday. This is probably the greatest remaining hurdle on Wichita State’s quest for an undefeated regular season. Now 23-0, the Shockers have just eight games left on their schedule, only three of which come against squads with a .500 or better record, and just one versus a team ranked within the KenPom top-100. That team is Indiana State, and that game is tonight at the Hulman Center.

Jake Odum and the Sycamores should give Wichita State a fight this time around. (Fernando Salazar/ The Wichita Eagle)

Jake Odum and the Sycamores should give Wichita State a fight this time around. (Fernando Salazar/ The Wichita Eagle)

Greg Lansing’s group should be dialed in after regaining some much-need momentum over the weekend at Northern Iowa, using a big second half rally to end the Panthers’ 11-game home winning streak and return to the win column. The Sycamores suffered a dreadful 19-point drubbing at Southern Illinois just three days earlier to all but end their at-large hopes, a sobering reality that perhaps bled into Saturday’s contest early. It took an angry locker room message from the head coach before the team finally woke up, ripping off 12 straight points in the first four minutes of the second half, tying the game before the first media timeout and maintaining firm control until the final whistle. It was an impressive comeback, the kind of focused, resilient effort they will need for a full 40 minutes in order to beat Wichita State.

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Boise State’s Struggles Not Doing Mountain West Any Favors

Posted by Bennet Hayes on February 3rd, 2014

Derrick Marks couldn’t move. The UNLV celebration had begun and handshake lines were forming around him, but Marks remained motionless, eyes staring blankly ahead. Losing 11-point leads in the final three and a half minutes of a basketball game will induce a little shock sometimes, but a glance at the paralyzed Marks made it clear that that this loss ran even deeper than that. Boise State had provided a 36-minute demonstration of why it had been picked second in the MW preseason poll. The Broncos looked like the NCAA Tournament team everyone had expected at the start of the year, and Marks was at the center of it all. He scored 22 points in every which way -– step-back jumpers, mid-range leaners, acrobatic layups — giving his team firm control of the second-half flow of play. But just as Boise appeared to be assuming a handle on both game and season, that fateful closing run of the Rebels (17-2 in its totality) completely ripped away any grip they may have found. Marks’ may still be processing the Broncos’ new reality, but the jarring loss landed his team further away than ever before from their second consecutive NCAA appearance. The Boise plight may also be a Mountain West plight, as the conference is looking more and more like a two-bid league, just a season after proudly sending five teams to the Big Dance.

Derrick Marks And Company Had Things Rolling For Most Of Saturday Night. A Late UNLV Surge Stole A Win From The Broncos, And May Have Redirected The Course Of Their Season.

Derrick Marks And Company Had Things Rolling For Most Of Saturday Night. A Late UNLV Surge Stole A Win From The Broncos, And May Have Redirected The Course Of Their Season.

This season was supposed to go differently for Leon Rice’s team. Expectations are bound to be elevated when you return your top six players from an NCAA Tournament team, and the Broncos have been unable to keep pace with the increased hype. Aside from a home win over a surprisingly solid Utah team, Boise’s most impressive result came in a road victory over #111 (KenPom) Hawaii in the Diamond Head Classic. They have taken care of business against inferior opponents (14-0 vs teams outside the top 100), but Saturday’s loss dropped the Broncos to just 1-7 against teams inside the top 100. That scar will need to be touched up in the coming weeks if Boise wants at-large hope on Selection Sunday, but don’t take that ugly record at face value. Four of those losses came by four points or less (including last night), and all but one, a 15-point loss at Kentucky, came by single digits. Most every major team statistical category is within range of where it was a year ago, and the defense actually looks marginally improved. The Broncos are clearly not leaps and bounds ahead of where they were a season ago, but contrary to what the record might indicate, they don’t actually appear to be any worse.

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Ranking the Mountain West Coaches

Posted by Andrew Murawa on January 30th, 2014

Any time you get around to comparing one coach to another, it’s a shaky situation. Isn’t the real decision about who is the better coach decided on the court? Sure, one coach may have more talent than another, but then again, isn’t pulling in talent part of the job description? So, prior to unveiling my rankings of the coaches in the Mountain West, lets offer up some criteria. For the most part, recruiting is excluded from this analysis. The question that we’ll attempt to answer instead is this: Pick any random team in the country — you don’t know its roster or its strengths and weaknesses — which Mountain West coach would give you the best chance over this and the next couple of seasons to get the most out of those players and leave the program in the best possible place at the end?

Well, here’s one man’s take, feel free to disagree.

Steve Fisher, San Diego State

The Dean Of Mountain West Coaches, Steve Fisher Is Among The Best In The Nation. (AP Photo/Gus Ruelas)

  1. Steve Fisher, San Diego State – The results speak for themselves. Not only are the Aztecs the best team in the conference this year, Fisher’s done the most unbelievable job of building a program in the conference. Seriously, his track record at SDSU may not deserve to be mentioned in the same sentence as elite program-builders with national titles under their belts like Lute Olson and Jim Calhoun, but this trajectory is very, very close. Put it this way: There’s one sure-fire Hall-of-Famer in this conference and it is this man. He’s head and shoulders above the rest. The knock on him when he was at Michigan was that he could recruit well but wasn’t much of a teacher or a tactician. And earlier in his career at San Diego State, he struggled with some end-game scenarios (the 2006 NCAA Tournament First Round loss to Indiana still upsets me). But these days, his record in unimpeachable. He gets his players to improve from one season to the next and throughout their careers. Even while bringing in solid talent, he gets his team to exceed expectations. The team that he puts on the court is something that his supportive community can be proud of. Not only is Fisher far and away the best coach in the Mountain West, he’s on the very short list of the best in the nation. Read the rest of this entry »
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Checking in on… the Mountain West

Posted by Andrew Murawa (@AMurawa) on January 21st, 2014

With New Mexico taking a home loss to UNLV this week and Nevada slipping back to reality a bit, San Diego State is all alone in the driver’s seat, the last remaining undefeated team in conference play. Now with a 15-game winning streak, the Aztecs have earned their way into the #11 spot in the latest RTC Top 25. Beyond Steve Fisher’s club, however, there are a lot of question marks. The Lobos are the clear #2 team in the conference, but questions remain about their long-term NCAA Tournament aspirations. Our resident bracketologist has them firmly in the field, but future home losses to middling teams are not recommended.

Team of the Week

Boise State Got Back On Track This Week, In Part Due With A Home Win Over Utah State (Devin Ferrell, The Arbiter)

Boise State Got Back On Track This Week, In Part Due With A Home Win Over Utah State. (Devin Ferrell, The Arbiter)

Boise State – The Broncos bounced back from a pair of losses with a very good week. They went on the road and handed Nevada its first loss of the season, and anytime you can get a road win in conference play – no matter what conference you’re in, but especially in this one – you’re doing something right. Then on Saturday they handled Utah State and have seemingly righted the ship, at least for now. Derrick Marks led the way with 20 points per game this week, but it was a full-team affair, with Ryan Watkins helping the Broncos control the paint and Anthony Drmic being his usual solid self. And there was even one more Bronco who made a big and surprising contribution this week, who we’ll get to shortly.

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The Best in the West: Ranking the Top 20 Teams West of the Rockies

Posted by Andrew Murawa (@AMurawa) on January 16th, 2014

Believe it or not, we’re about halfway through the season right now. So, it is time to revisit our Best in the West rankings. We did this about a month back, but to remind you, here’s how we roll. We take all the schools west of the Rockies (and we’re going to be a bit generous with our geography – basically we’re looking at schools from the Pac-12, Mountain West, West Coast and Big West and then some of the schools from the Big Sky and WAC) and give you the top 20 teams. But, rather than just ranking schools #1 though #20, we’re going to divide all these teams up into tiers of similar quality. Below, you’ll see our Top 20 teams in the West (their overall rank will be in parentheses), with descriptions of what we think the teams in each tier have in common, plus brief comments on some of the teams in our list.

The Best of the BestIn a league of their own.

  • Arizona (#1 overall, Pac-12 #1) – Not only are the Wildcats head and shoulders above the rest of the teams out West, the argument can be made that they’re on a tier of their own nationally as well.
Arizona Has Established Themselves As A Team Head and Shoulders Above The Rest (Kevin Sapio, USA Today)

Arizona Has Established Themselves As A Team Head and Shoulders Above The Rest. (Kevin Sapio, USA Today)

Contenders to the Throne – And all Top 25 teams.

  • San Diego State (#2 overall, Mtn West #1) – Last time we did this, we had three teams in this tier, and the Aztecs were not among them. This time, the Aztecs are the only team aside from Arizona that should be considered a sure-fire Top 25 team.

Solid NCAA Tournament Team – Just outside the Top 25, but all with plenty of upside.

  • California (#3 overall, Pac-12 #2) – These teams are all bunched together by just about any metric. While I think you can make a case for any one of them for something like the #24 or #25 spot in your national Top 25, you can make an equally valid case that all of these teams deserve to be on the outside looking in. That being said, it is likely that if you make a national top 35, every one of these squads should probably be in there. We’ll take the Golden Bears by a hair over the rest of this group on the basis of their hot streak minus a couple of key players, but really, all these teams are very tight.

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O26 Resume Review: Saint Louis Trending Upward; Harvard, Boise, St. Mary’s Dropping…

Posted by Adam Stillman on January 15th, 2014

Conference play is in full swing for every team that falls into the O26 category. It’s a new season of sorts. We’ll see teams that set themselves apart from the rest of their leagues, thus thrusting themselves into the NCAA Tournament at-large conversation. Then we’ll see other teams crumble, taking themselves out of the big picture. It’s time for the contenders to separate themselves from the pretenders, so let’s take a look at a few of the O26 teams that either helped or hurt their at-large cases during the past week of action.

Helped

To be honest, there weren’t many O26 teams that really boosted their credentials this past week. Sure, Nevada has had a nice couple of weeks by starting out 4-0 in Mountain West play before Tuesday night’s loss to Boise State. But the Wolf Pack’s lackluster non-conference slate — complete with losses to Cal State Bakersfield, Pacific, Morehead State and Nebraska-Omaha — really remove them from the conversation. George Washington picked up a nice home win against VCU as well, but that loss to La Salle on January 9 prevented the Colonials from turning in a big week.

Saint Louis (14-2). There was only one O26 team that really helped itself last week. Saint Louis went entered the weekend with a gaudy record but didn’t have much meat on its resume (10 RPI 150+ wins). That all changed after the Billikens traveled to Dayton and picked up a huge road win. The 67-59 victory on January 11 handed SLU its first top-50 RPI win of the season, as prior to the victory over the Flyers, the Billikens’ best win was a 17-point drubbing of Indiana State (RPI #65) at home. Now SLU’s 14-2 mark finally has something to stand on. Boasting a #33 RPI doesn’t hurt either. The two losses are to Wichita State and Wisconsin, a pair of top-five teams. The Billikens are now at home for four of their next five games — the one roadie is at Duquesne — meaning SLU should enter the toughest part of its schedule with a 19-2 mark. Not too shabby. Then comes games at Saint Joseph’s and La Salle before a home date with Virginia Commonwealth, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves just yet.

Dwayne Evans and the Saint Louis Billkens are on the rise. (Thearon Henderson)

Dwayne Evans and the Saint Louis Billkens are on the rise. (Thearon Henderson)

Projected seed for now: #9

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