Before the 13th-ranked Saint Louis Billikens left Monday for games at Saint Joseph’s and La Salle, senior forward Dwayne Evans tweeted, "Off to Philly for the week!"
Note the exclamation point. Though Philadelphia isn’t exactly a tourist destination when buried by winter, Evans has at least one very good reason for being excited about this trip. His team has enjoyed much success against the Atlantic 10’s Philadelphia pair.
Two years ago, the Billikens went to Philadelphia and knocked off Saint Joseph’s and La Salle in convincing fashion, a sweep that helped SLU reach the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2000. In seven games against the Philly schools, Evans and his fellow seniors have lost only once.
A sweep this time might be even more impressive. The first-place Billikens (20-2, 7-0) have become a fixture in all of the top 25s, including the RPI, so beating them now becomes the kind of resume builder the Hawks and Explorers need to have a legitimate shot at the NCAA tournament. As defending conference champions, the Billikens already were the opponent that Atlantic 10 teams circled on their schedule.
It’s not that Saint Joseph’s (tipoff at 6 p.m. Wednesday on FOX Sports Midwest Plus) needs any added incentive. The Hawks are playing as well as they have all season. They just knocked off Massachusetts last Saturday for their fifth straight victory. At 5-2, they harbor hopes of winning the regular-season title.
Saint Joe’s can almost match the Billikens in senior experience, too. The Hawks are scheduled to start three seniors, all of whom will be getting big minutes against SLU for the third straight year. The trio — guard Langston Galloway, forward Ron Roberts Jr. and point forward Halil Kanacevic — each poses unusual challenges for the opposition.
Roberts, 6-foot-8 with Jordair Jett-type explosion underneath the basket, is averaging double figures for the third straight season. He’s never attempted a 3-pointer in his four years at Saint Joe’s but doesn’t need to venture away from the basket. Roberts is shooting 56.2 percent, second in the conference and his fourth straight season over 50 percent.
"I’ve always been a big Ron Roberts fan," SLU coach Jim Crews said. "He’s explosive, broad shouldered, a quick jumper who goes right through you. He presents all kinds of problems."
So does Kanacevic, but for a different reason. He also is 6-8 but Kanacevic is such an adept ball-handler and passer that the Hawks run their offense through him. He is averaging 4.4 assists this season, fourth in the conference just behind Jett.
Galloway is a 6-2 shooting guard who leads the Hawks with a 16.7 scoring average. After a subpar shooting season last year, Galloway has bounced back to lead the conference in 3-point shooting at 45.1 percent. "Galloway is playing extremely well," Crews said.
Of course, the Billikens have been playing as well as any team in the land. They will be gunning for a school-record 15th straight victory and trying to improve their road record to 8-0 (not including a neutral-court loss to Wisconsin). As the conference’s dominant defensive force, they pose a test defensively that Saint Joe’s coach Phil Martelli compared to facing Texas Tech during the Hawks’ banner 30-2 season 10 years ago.
"I remember watching the film and saying, ‘You know what, this is like watching a defensive clinic,’" Martelli said. "Saint Louis is exactly the same thing. They don’t worry so much about what you’re doing. They concentrate solely on what they’re doing."
As the Billikens headed out to Philadelphia, it could not have worked out much better. Or, as Evans might add, much better!
You can follow Stan McNeal on Twitter at @stanmcneal or email him at email@example.com.