KANSAS CITY, Mo. – It’s easy to second-guess yourself after playing a perennial college basketball powerhouse like the Kansas Jayhawks, just ask Saint Louis head coach Jim Crews.
As Crews spoke to reporters following the Billikens 73-59 loss to Kansas in the CBE Classic championship game, he couldn’t help shoulder the burden of what went wrong. It’s what coaches do. Losses hurt no matter what.
The main idea behind the Saint Louis game plan was relatively simple: take away Kansas big man Jeff Withey down low and force others to beat them.
Good news: the Billikens executed their plan. Bad news: It backfired.
Plug one hole, another opens up. Take one option away, another player steps up. That’s what good teams can do, and that’s what Kansas did.
With Saint Louis focused on stopping the 7-foot Withey, Travis Releford took full advantage. The 6-foot-6 Kansas City native poured in 21 of his 23 points in the first half, requiring the Billikens to alter their approach during the intermission.
Good news: the Billikens made the necessary adjustments. Bad news: It backfired.
Withey had 15 of his game-high 25 points in the second half while asserting his dominance on the defensive end, swatting away a total of seven shots on the night.
“Travis was unbelievable in the first half,” Kansas head coach Bill Self noted. “They made a decision not to guard him and so he was unbelievable and made them pay and we get a big lead.
“And in the second half the reason why Jeff had the big game was because they guarded Travis. I thought based on stats and looking it, I would say that’s a very smart way to play us.”
Smart as it may have been, the Jayhawks were just too much for Saint Louis.
“Kansas is obviously a very good team and going to have a good year,” Crews said. “Bill always has his team set up where they will put a lot of pressure on you in a lot of different ways just because of their setup on how they do things offensively.
“Obviously the big kid got away from us tonight, but I thought our kids had a good mentality, they kept battling.”
Saint Louis started off slow. The Billikens hit just 6 of 23 shots in the first half while turning the ball over 10 times.
“We came out flat,” SLU forward Cody Ellis said. “I don’t know the reason for that, but we have to be ready to go from the start. Against a good team like Kansas, you can’t do that. That’s where they are going to step on your throat and extend the lead.”
It wasn’t a total fiasco for the Billikens, they played far beyond what the lopsided final score might infer.
What the final score can’t tell you is how much grit and determination Saint Louis played with despite a six-man rotation for the majority of the game.
“Saint Louis is not easy to score on,” Bill Self stated. “I would have been very happy before the game if I had known we would score 73. They are very good, very good defensively.
“And when they get all their pieces back, they are a top 25 team, I really believe that.”
Ellis led the way offensively for the Billikens, scoring 19 points and grabbing seven boards while Dwayne Evans hauled in a game-high 11 rebounds to go along with 8 points.
Mike McCall played intelligent, quick and never backed down from the merciless Jayhawk pressure displayed throughout the contest. The junior guard logged 38 minutes in a game when he was needed most as injuries and fouls mounted.
Jake Barnett followed up a strong performance the night before with even more energy and determination. The 6-foot-5 guard went 3-for-3 from beyond the arc, all of which were at key points of the game.
“Jake’s really worked at it over his career,” Crews said. “And really didn’t get much playing time last year. He’s getting in there and getting more comfortable.
“He has some spunk to him and some fight to him. He’s getting better and better and more comfortable out there and he’s going to help us.”
Cory Remekun played 31 minutes in just his second game back from a knee injury and provided 10 points and two blocks. His thunderous alley-hoop dunk early in the first half was as athletic as it gets.
Jordair Jett came out with defensive aggression, but it cost him as he picked up two quick fouls to start the game. Jett then appeared to aggravate a lower body injury that caused him limited minutes in the second half.
Rob Loe was a non-factor, picking up bad personal fouls against an overpowering Withey. SLU had a size option on the bench to guard Withey in John Manning, but decided against using the 6-11 sophomore.
“I probably wish I did use Manning more,” Crews stated. “He’s been doing well in practice and doing good. I really don’t have any good reason to why we didn’t.
“In fact, I just told him that in the locker room. He’s been doing a good job and probably should have put him in more.”
All in all, there were select positives to take away from the loss. The Billikens fought hard against elite competition even without their best player and a short bench.
“You have to learn from the rear view mirror,” Crews said. “But the car has to be pointed in the other direction.”
If the effort was any indication, the Billikens are on the right path.