With Kwamain Mitchell, the heart of the team, out, the Billikens' opener left much to be desired.
By ANDREW ASTLEFORDFS Midwest
ST. LOUIS – Absence makes the clock spin slower.
For Saint Louis, each day without senior Kwamain Mitchell – the guard at the heart of Great Expectations – will pass with a slug's pace. A swift return to normalcy would be preferred, but sometimes a grimace comes before the grin.
Take interim coach Jim Crews' word for it. Friday, the
Billikens popped the cork on one of their most anticipated seasons in recent memory by thumping USC Upstate 76-59. Most pieces for a drama-free night at Chaifetz Arena were in place: Diverse scoring (four SLU players finished in double figures, led by junior forward Dwayne Evans' 21 points); strength on the glass (the Billikens outrebounded the Spartans by 11); and scrappy defense (USC Upstate committed 15 turnovers).
But one chunk of the jigsaw was missing. It was seen with Mitchell hobbling off the court in street clothes on crutches, sidelined because of a fracture in his left foot sustained in October.
So, Coach, how did the first regular-season game go without your floor leader?
"Not good," Crews said. "We would really prefer to have him – it's a lot easier on all the other guys. (Junior guard) Jordair (Jett) played 35 minutes, (junior guard) Mike (McCall) played 36 minutes. That's a lot of minutes – especially like a game like tonight's. … We feel bad for Kwam, but we don't have a magic potion. You've just got to live with it."
Mitchell's injury is like a broken stereo at a house party. Until he underwent surgery, this night was supposed to mark a coming-out celebration for what could be a memorable season in Midtown. It was supposed to mark the start of an encore to a 26-8 campaign that wrapped up in the Round of 32 last March.
Instead, there was a pinch of buzzkill served with a 1-0 start. Let's shelve the debate on what's lost without Mitchell. The Billikens miss clear production like his career total of 1,321 points and an assist/turnover ratio of +2.1 from last season.
But there are other factors absent as well, things that can't be scribbled in a stat book. Things like comfort, confidence and a trusted pair of eyes to steer SLU through this uncharted terrain.
"Kwamain is a big presence on the court, and he's one heck of a player," Evans said. "We miss his production and his leadership on the court, but he's been around. He hasn't missed one meeting … so he's still a major part of this team, and we're looking forward to getting him back."
What happens before, though, will shape the Billikens' early season. Crews hopes to have Mitchell, a preseason All-Atlantic 10 first-team selection, return before the conference opener against Massachusetts on Jan. 10. Still, that leaves SLU with teeth-gnashing tests without him.
Hello, Texas A&M on Nov. 19.
Greetings, Washington on Nov. 28.
Good to see you, New Mexico on Dec. 31.
"Kwamain was still with us," said sophomore forward Grandy Glaze, who had four points. "He's on the bench all the time. He's always in meetings. He's always part of the team. He hasn't detached himself because of his injury. It's just part of the game."
This is also part of the game: Evolving roles, a shift in responsibility, patience while adjusting on the fly because of injury. McCall, who started 13 games last season, is charged with leading SLU's offensive attack without Mitchell. Friday raised no red flags; McCall finished with 12 points and two assists with only one turnover.
Still, these early games without No. 3 will feel like sitting through PG trailers before a blockbuster film. Are the Billikens worthy of the hype? Can they win the A-10? Can they reach a second consecutive NCAA Tournament for the first time since dancing in 1994 and '95?
We won't know until Mitchell's return. November and December will be hors d'oeuvres, and the following months could be filet mignon with a rich red wine. Or they could be a corn dog with cold macaroni and cheese.
Whatever the result, time will crawl until we see Mitchell back.