Billikens host UMass in Atlantic 10 opener

Kwamain Mitchell and the Billikens welcome UMass to Chaifetz Arena to open A-10 Conference play

ST. LOUIS – It didn’t take long for interim SLU coach Jim Crews to realize how good the Massachusetts Minutemen were as he prepared for their A-10 opener Thursday night at Chaifetz Arena.


He just put in the tape of last year’s 72-59 loss in Amherst.


“Very good,” Crews said Monday. “They only had us down 19 and beat us by 13 and the vast majority of their guys are back so they are plenty good. They are having a good year this year.


“They were just much better that day than we were. Much better than us.”


Crews and the Billikens are hoping for different results Thursday as they begin their quest for an Atlantic 10 Conference regular season championship. They went 12-4 in the A-10 last year and finished one game behind Temple in the league race.


The Atlantic 10 Conference figures to be one of the best in the country this year with the additions of VCU and Butler. St. Josephs was the preseason pick to win the league and Temple already has a win over previously undefeated Syracuse on it’s resume.


“It’s exciting and very challenging,” Crews said. “Now teams know each other much better, the players know each other better. Non-conference there’s no championship so now you’re playing for a championship and each game presents itself as 1/16th of a championship and that makes it fun.


“Competition is fun. The A-10 has good competition. You have to earn things. The more you earn, the better your confidence gets but it’s tough to earn it.”


The Billikens went 11-3 in the non-conference portion of their season, losing to Santa Clara at home, Kansas on a neutral court and at Washington. They have won eight games in a row, including a 60-46 win over No. 20 New Mexico on New Year’s Eve.


“I think in the non-conference our kids did an extremely good job,” Crews said. “Fourteen games, you know wins and losses we started off with a struggle, but really the Santa Clara game was the only game that wasn’t good, period. The other games, the two other losses, we did good things and not enough good things, but I like their progress.


“I think we had a very good non-conference and where we are now, but that’s over and we’re in conference now.”


Thursday’s game against UMass (10-3) will be the third opportunity already for the Billikens to get revenge on an opponent from a loss last season. SLU beat Loyola Marymount and New Mexico earlier this season after losing to them last year.


And to make it three for three, the Billikens will have to find a way to slow junior guard Chaz Williams. The first-team All-Conference player last year is averaging 15.5 points and a league-best 7.4 assists per game to lead the Minutemen.


“Hopefully we can continue that trend,” SLU forward Dwane Evans said of seeking revenge. “Especially after watching film, we were down 19 at one point early in the second half, so it’s definitely a revenge game we’d like to cross off the list.


“Obviously we know how tough conference is going to be so were going to have to probably pull out some hard fought wins but I thought we got it done in the non-conference except for a couple blips here and there but I think we set ourselves up to do really well in the coming games.”


Tip time is scheduled for 8 p.m. central.