Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Rebounding from Sorrow, the St. Louis Billikens are Solidifying Their Resume

Dwayne Evans and Mike McCall, Jr., are SLU's leading scorers this season. (Nick Krug/KUSports.com)

The line between top-tier college basketball programs and mid-majors is blurring. The probability it ever vanishes completely is low, but the ascension of schools like Butler and Gonzaga to the plane of annual NCAA tournament competitors not just attendants — has the college hoops community putting an ever-more scrupulous eye on smaller schools. Whether it is the blue bloods that schedule mid-majors hoping they can bully less recruited players for an easy victory, the teams that draw such schools in non-conference tournaments and are uncertain about how to handle that below-the-radar opponent, or the teams that meet these mid-majors multiple times each year in conference play — begrudgingly or not, the little brothers of college basketball have earned respect. For the first time in more than a decade, the St. Louis Billikens have played like a team deserving this reverence.

The Billikens' biggest moment of national exposure came when they were on the wrong end of a 73-59 rout by Kansas in the CBE Hall of Fame Classic, but even a loss like that — to one of NCAA Division I's most history-rich programs on a neutral court just 45 minutes from the favored team's home court — will be considered good in the eyes of the NCAA tournament selection committee.

A home loss to the Santa Clara Broncos, who have put together their own respectable record thus far, and a five-point stumble to the Washington Huskies on the trip to the Pacific Northwest are the only other blotches on the Billikens' agenda. The rest of St. Louis' schedule is sterling, including a win over Texas A&M, just a few seasons removed from being a threat to the Jayhawks' own streak of Big 12 titles. The crown jewel in St. Louis' collection of wins is a 60-46 smashing of No. 20 New Mexico on Monday. Davidson, George Mason, Cincinnati, UCONN are all teams that the Lobos have bested, and the Billikens beat them soundly, irritating UNM head coach Steve Alford so much that the 22-year veteran picked up back-to-back technical fouls and was ejected from a game for the first time in his career.

The Billikens pounded the paint, outscoring the Lobos 32-16 on the inside as the SLU back court contributed just 21 points. From a team who entered the season touted on the shoulders of senior guard Kwamain Mitchell, that's not a shabby showing.

In fact, the Billikens have succeeded largely without Mitchell, who underwent surgery to repair a fracture in his left foot in mid-October and returned on Dec. 28, just in time for play in a tune-up game against SIU-Edwardsville before facing New Mexico.

As we noted in our Atlantic 10 conference preview, the Billikens are dangerous because of the continuity of their line-up from last season to this season. With the exception forward Brian Conklin — SLU's leading scorer in 2011-12, closely followed by Mitchell — every player from last year's team returned for the Billikens for another go-around.

That roster continuity is what many mid-major schools thrive on, relying on less recruited players to develop chemistry with the same teammates by playing together year after year. This is one of the rudimentary elements that can lead to upsets in postseason tournaments, but the Billikens were not exactly a quiet story coming into the season. They were expected to contend for the A-10 title, even with new additions to the conference Butler and VCU making immediate impacts, and gained attention after beating Memphis during the first round of NCAA tournament play in March before narrowly losing to Michigan State, all while carrying a No. 13 seed.

In Mitchell's absence, the Billikens proceeded with a balanced attack, led in scoring by two guards and two forwards, each averaging over 8.5 points per game. SLU is now 77th overall in field goal percentage, shooting at a .458 rate, and primed to enter conference play at an all-out sprint, already carrying an RPI of 50. But one unquantifiable trait of the Billikens' group personality is how much they are fueled by the loss of head coach Rick Majerus, who had not sat on the St. Louis bench this season before losing his life to health issues.

Mid-major success is often said to be based off intangibles, like chemistry, heart, grit... The list can, and will, go as far as an imaginative mind can take it. In the case of the Billikens, those tags all happen to be applicable, but there is also ball movement and shooting accuracy to take into account when facing a team — this team — that could make a serious racket come tournament time.

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