ST. LOUIS — Granted, the Saint Louis University Billikens haven’t played the toughest schedule, but they are 5-0. They’re also coming off a 28-7 season and returned four starters, qualifications that you’d think would be enough to gain a little respect from the nation’s basketball pollsters.
But the Billikens didn’t receive a single mention in the latest AP Top 25, and they’re just 38th in the coaches’ poll. Coach Jim Crews shrugs off the notion of any slights, preferring to stay focused on the process he preaches at every opportunity.
Besides, with the Billikens in Mexico for a two-game tournament before Thanksgiving and a ranked opponent coming to town Sunday, the schedule is about to get significantly tougher. If they’re looking for a chance to turn some heads, this week is it.
With that opportunity upon them, here are five takeaways from the Billikens’ season thus far.
THEIR TIME IS COMING
If the Billikens are undefeated a week from now, you can be certain they will be attracting their share of national attention. They face as difficult a schedule this week as they will all season.
They meet No. 10 Wisconsin on Tuesday night in Mexico as part of the Cancun Challenge, and then No. 12 Wichita State visits Chaifetz Arena on Sunday afternoon. In between, the Billikens will play Old Dominion or West Virginia in their last of four games in the Cancun Challenge on Wednesday.
Typically a defensive-minded, grind-it-out-offensive team, the always-tough Badgers have played more up-tempo this season. They actually topped 100 points in a game for the first time since 1995 last week when 7-foot junior forward Frank Kaminsky scored a school-record 43 points in a 103-85 victory over North Dakota. Kaminsky, who averaged 4.3 points last season, made 6 of 6 3-pointers and shot 16 of 18.
For what it’s worth, SLU has come away with a bigger margin of victory against common opponents Bowling Green and Oral Roberts. Still, the Billikens know the Badgers are a step above any team they’ve faced.
“They’re a big team, physical team,” senior forward Dwayne Evans said. “We’re going to play the same way we play every game.”
You can’t tell from Evans’ numbers, but his teammates have noticed. The Billikens’ senior forward is getting more attention from opposing defenses this season, as you’d expect for a first-team pick on the Atlantic 10’s all-conference preseason team. When getting the ball down low, he’s been attracting a crowd.
“Teams are starting to trap him in the post,” guard Mike McCall Jr. said. “They know that’s where he is dominant.”
Evans’ scoring in the early going is down only a tick, to 13.6 points per game from a team-best 14.0 last season. While he’s shooting better than 50 percent, his field-goal percentage has slipped to 51.1 from 54.7. He puts the decline more on himself than on his opponents, and there’s no reason to be concerned. Evans is the only Billiken to score in double figures every game, extending his streak that started last January to 23 games.
WHO’S NO. 2?
If you’re waiting to see who will emerge as the Billikens’ second-leading scorer, you could be waiting a while. So far, guard Jordair Jett, forward Grandy Glaze and McCall also have led the team in scoring. Jett actually has led in two games, while McCall is first on the team in shots attempted.
Eight players already have reached double figures at least once, though no one has scored 20 yet. A balanced, unselfish offense it has been, much to Crews’ approval. In their 74-47 victory over Bowling Green on Saturday, the Billikens recorded 25 assists on 30 baskets.
“You’ll never see a guy on this team take a bad shot purposely if another guy is open,” Evans said. “We have a lot of unselfish guys. It makes us more in tune offensively and a close-knit group.”
Even though the Billikens led Bowling Green by 10 at the half Saturday night, their early-season trend of unimpressive first halves continued. So far this season, SLU has been a second-half team.
In the first half, they are shooting 41.9 percent; in the second, 53.4. Their defense also has tightened after intermission. Opponents have shot 43.8 percent in the first half, 35.6 percent in the second.
Players insist they’re ready to go from the opening tip, maybe even overly ready.
“Guys are a little bit too excited. It’s not like (a lack of) focus,” McCall said. “Coach has been talking to us, and it’s definitely going to have to change if we’re going to be good.”
If Crews has been disappointed with any area of the Billikens’ play, it has been their scoring inside the key. After two games, he has brought up the struggles his players have had converting inside baskets.
“I thought we were contact conscious going to the bucket,” he said after the Bowling Green victory. “They’re waiting to get hit, (then) not getting hit and not finishing very well. But we cleaned that up at halftime.”
You can follow Stan McNeal on Twitter at @stanmcneal or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.