Crews, Mitchell must lead SLU without Majerus
OCT 11, 2012 10:05a ET
"Certainly," said Crews, a Billikens assistant coach promoted after Majerus' leave of absence in August due to a heart condition, "habits that have been instilled by Coach are still there."
"Everyone," said Mitchell, who finished second on the team with an average of 12.4 points last season, "knows it's going to be hard at times."
On Wednesday afternoon, basketball at Chaifetz Arena rustled from its offseason slumber. About 30 minutes into a workout, Crews walked the court with a pen in his left hand and a sheet of paper in his right, the bricks of a new era laid with his every word. Nearby, Mitchell stroked 3-pointers from a corner and paused to listen to Crews, chemistry brewing with each exchange.
It's different here. That's the first thing that comes to mind between the sweet sounds of dribbling that echo off the walls. In February, Chaifetz Arena roared with the fury of a lion's den in an 11-point victory over Xavier that helped SLU clinch its first NCAA Tournament berth since 2000. Afterward, Majerus honored seniors Brian Conklin and Kyle Cassity on the court with the satisfaction of a pleased father before more than 10,400 fans.
At that point, the craftsman of South Compton Avenue was well on his way to molding the best memory of his five-year SLU career. Majerus led the Billikens to 26 victories, the most since Rich Grawer guided them to a school-record 27 in the 1988-89 season. They earned at least 23 triumphs for the second time in three campaigns.
This was Majerus' pride. This was his masterpiece.
"We keep telling them that there always has to be a competition edge," said Crews, a former coach at Army and Evansville whom Majerus hired before last season. "Those details are their competition edge. That's what we keep. That's what I've always believed, and certainly Rick instilled that into these guys. I think his lessons will be lengthened."
What they keep. It will be the shadow that lingers over the program all winter without Majerus, despite Atlantic 10 Conference coaches picking the Billikens to finish second in the league behind St. Joseph's.
What they keep. It will be the largest X-factor studied in an uncertain season, despite a roster that includes three returning seniors (Mitchell and forwards Cody Ellis and Cory Remekun) and a real chance to reach the NCAA Tournament for the eighth time in program history.
What they keep. It will be a challenge tasked to Crews and Mitchell, named a preseason A-10 first-team selection, to remember the past while creating a new direction in their image.
"For me, my relationship with Coach was a personal love," Mitchell said. "He recruited me when I was in high school. We're going to miss him, but we've still got to move on."
The process has begun. It mirrors the Billikens' search for identity in their post-Majerus world: Slow at first – then more comfort with each passing week. There was a meeting to discuss the transition. There was a feeling-out period between Crews and the players in early workouts. Mitchell, for one, has noticed small differences between the two leaders like changes in terminology.
For Crews, his task is no different than solving a 300-piece jigsaw puzzle. He must learn to read the ranging talents and personalities on his roster -- most of which were comfortable with Majerus -- and fasten them to create an effective blend of execution in a year when Butler and Virginia Commonwealth will add to the A-10's depth.
For Mitchell, his task is no different than that of a middle manager promoted after years of grooming. He must embrace the emotional leadership that Conklin offered last season, guiding his team with his play and his words to help his peers reach their potential.
"Just becoming a man," Mitchell said, when asked about the greatest gift Majerus gave him. "Coming in as a freshman, there were some things I didn't know about life. Coach was there to teach me and lead me onto the right path on and off the court. That's one thing that people are always telling me – that he makes you into a good basketball player but also a young man."
There's a subtle tribute in those words. It's a common one when hearing Crews and Mitchell speak. Both refer to Majerus as "Coach," despite his distance from the program, despite a foggy future.
It's as if Crews and Mitchell are aware that this season is about moving on but also about keeping close what was gained in the last five years: Progress, national relevancy, confidence that the building can continue. Work remains.
"This year, everyone thinks we're good," Crews said. "We're not any good today. But, hopefully, we'll get a little bit better today and a little bit better tomorrow and get to be good. That's part of the process."
It's a process that Crews and Mitchell will be entrusted to lead. Majerus is gone, dribbles have returned to Chaifetz Arena, an offseason slumber is nearly complete.
The Billikens' heart beats on before their most anticipated season in recent memory.
They must learn to thrive without their strongest soul.
You can follow Andrew Astleford on Twitter @aastleford or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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