ST. LOUIS – Expectations have never been higher for the Saint Louis Billikens, but can they live up to the hype?
The Billikens return four starters from last year’s squad that went 26-8 overall and 12-4 in the Atlantic 10 and are picked to finish second in the conference this season. Preseason first-team All-Conference selection Kwamain Mitchell leads a dynamic group of guards complimented with equally seasoned and talented big men.
So why question the high expectations?
Although it might feel like just yesterday SLU knocked off Memphis before falling to top-seeded Michigan State in the round of 32 of the NCAA Tournament, much has changed. And with that change, comes many questions.
Head coach Rick Majerus has stepped aside for the season to recover from a heart issue, which leaves Jim Crews with the keys to the program.
The former Army and Evansville head coach whom Majerus hired before last season insists he will defer from his preferred offensive scheme to keep the current Majerus system in place. But he might need some help from his upper classman.
During the majority of Majerus’ career at SLU, he was surrounded with an experienced group of coaches complimented with a young and inexperienced team. In the first year sans-Majerus, it appears the roles have been reversed.
Gone from last season’s staff is top assistant coach Chris Harriman as well as Tony Young, leaving all of the current staff in either their first or second year with the program.
With the coaching turnover, can the new ideas and philosophies co-exist with the old?
Kwamain Mitchell returns for his final season in a Billikens jersey and must once again overcome a setback to find his rhythm on the court. After breaking his foot in the first week of practice, the senior point guard is scheduled for a return around Christmas and just in time for conference play.
This is where things could get dicey for the boys in blue.
The Billikens enter this season as deep at the guard position as any team in the Atlantic 10, but Mitchell is the major reason why. While Jett and McCall are more than capable of holding down the backcourt duties while their floor general recovers, they are yet to prove and exhibit the same amount of leadership or command of the game.
By the end of last season, the offense started and ended through the hands of Kwamain Mitchell. If the shot clock was winding down, everyone on the court knew where the ball would be. Whether it was a pull-up jumper, slash to the basket or drive and dish, the dynamic leader owned the situation.
Who will step up in his absence?
Mike McCall has proven he can score. He led the Billikens in scoring his freshman year, but has struggled to create his own shot and find offensive consistency throughout his career. Spending a full season alongside Mitchell and entering his junior season with ample experience should give him the confidence to take the next step with his game.
Jordair Jett more than likely will move from the bench to a starting role. There may not be a better on the ball defender in the Atlantic 10. Jett is built like a running back and has shown the ability to get to the basket at will. There were glimpses of his offensive capabilities last season, but look for Jett to establish more of a consistent scoring presence when needed.
Mitchell’s injury could become opportunity for either Jake Barnett or highly touted freshman Keith Carter.
Barnett spent three weeks in China over the summer on a goodwill tour with the goal of bettering his all-around game. The 6-foot-5 sharp shooter has the experience element on his side, but will that be enough to keep Keith Carter behind him on the depth chart?
Regarded as Rick Majerus’ best recruit since Andre Miller, Carter enters the program coming off a high school senior season to which he finished second in the Illinois Mr. Basketball voting behind the top nation’s top recruit, Jabari Parker. Can the highly praised Chicago native live up to the billing?
As far as the front court is concerned, Saint Louis appears to be in good shape. There are questions of who will replace the production of Brian Conklin, but by the end of last season it was clear that Conklin’s value was more defined in toughness and knowledge of the system rather than points and rebounds.
Senior forward Cody Ellis figures to step in to the starting lineup while providing the on-court leadership. If there is one thing for certain, it’s that the 6-foot-8 Australian can rest easy knowing the NCAA didn’t implement the ‘flop rule’ that is making its debut in the NBA this season.
Ellis, who spent a portion of the offseason competing with Australia’s Junior National team, was one of three Billikens to score in double figures last year (10.1 ppg) and will again be a focal point for the offense. Always a threat from beyond the arc, Ellis made great strides last season with his low post moves and will need to continue that progress this season.
The key for returning starting forward Dwayne Evans will be playing within himself. When the junior struggled last season, it was because he tried to do too much and force the action. The 6-foot-5 Evans is most effective when he simply lets the game come to him, which is basically providing tough, sound defense on one end and relentlessness on the glass and ability to finish close to the basket on the other.
Rob Loe won’t have to impress Simon Cowell anytime soon, but his presence on the court will surely be an x-factor for SLU. The 6-foot-11 junior also spent time with his national team, competing with New Zealand in an Olympic Qualifying Tournament during the summer and gained valuable international experience.
With the international experience comes a different brand of basketball. In his first two seasons stateside, Loe has preferred the jump shot to the jump hook. Slowly but surely, he made his way away from the three-point line down to the paint. While he remains a threat from deep, Saint Louis is just fine with the perimeter options they have available and will need Loe to continue build on his progress in the paint.
The big bodies on the bench will provide a stark contrast to their international counterparts.
Senior Cory Remekun figures to be a valuable piece off the bench and will give the Billikens an athletic shot-blocking option when needed. The 6-foot-8 forward has shown flashes of his ability, but the light has never completely turned on. Could he take the same leap as Brian Conklin last year?
Sophomores Grandy Glaze and John Manning also figure to be in the mix, with the edge going to Manning due to his sheer size. The 6-foot-11 center was praised by Majerus as the next dominant force in the A-10, but rarely saw the floor his freshman season. Look for more from both.
Freshman forward Jared Drew and Central Michigan transfer guard Austin McBroom round out the Billikens roster. Last season, McBroom was named to the Mid-American Conference All-Freshman team after averaging 10.9 ppg and a team-best 2.7 assists per game, but will be forced to sit out this season due to NCAA transfer rules.
There is no doubt about it, the Billikens are a team deep with talent, experience and grit. But even with all the expectation and promise that waits, the questions are still there.
Can they transition from Majerus to Crews? Can they maintain while Mitchell recovers? Will they live up to the preseason accolades? Can players adjust to new roles? Will they compete for a conference title in the loaded A-10?
Thankfully these questions will be answered beginning on November 9 at Chaifetz Arena when the Billikens tip off the season against USC Upstate.
Overcoming adversity is nothing new for the program, and if there is one team in America that is primed and ready to answer any questions that may arise, it’s the Billikens.
So get your popcorn ready, Saint Louis. It’s going to be a wild ride.