KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Five days after a night worth forgetting, Saint Louis coach Jim Crews allowed himself to make light of some November adversity. It was easy to laugh about now, after a much more pleasant show.
The Billikens routed Texas A&M 70-49 in the CBE Hall of Fame Classic semifinals Monday. Afterward, deep in Sprint Center, senior forward Cory Remekun was asked about Saint Louis’ 12-point loss to Santa Clara last Wednesday. The Billikens’ first defeat provided a valuable lesson for a group aiming for a second consecutive NCAA Tournament bid: There will be letdowns in a push toward March, and the reaction to them is often more telling than what happened before.
“It was hard to watch, because I know that wasn’t us out there,” Remekun said of the Santa Clara loss.
“We would have rather gone to a movie,” Crews said. “Right, Cory?”
“Yeah, yeah,” Remekun said.
“Watching that – that was not good,” Crews continued. “We would have rather watched a movie than watched what we watched.”
If the Billikens’ loss to Santa Clara was an R-rated slasher flick, their victory over Texas A&M was a PG matinee: A comedy, a laugher by midway through the second half that offered a bounce after their bust at Chaifetz Arena. SLU led by as many as 24 points with 4:14 left, and by then, even Johnny Manziel would have strained to lead the Aggies from behind.
The Billikens’ contributions were diverse, a large reason why this plot was kinder to them. Junior forward Dwayne Evans earned a game-high 21 points. Junior guard Mike McCall (13), Remekum (12) and senior forward Cody Ellis (10) also produced double-figure scoring.
“I think we got back to doing things the way we’ve been practicing,” Evans said. “We got away from that. We got a little individual-oriented in the Santa Clara game.”
It’s amazing what a change of venue and an opponent that makes you think “football school” will do. Against Santa Clara, the Billikens shot 35.3 percent. Against Texas A&M, they shot 51 percent. Against Santa Clara, the Billikens had 25 rebounds. Against Texas A&M, they had 31. Against Santa Clara, the Billikens had 10 assists. Against Texas A&M, they had 17.
Against Santa Clara, the Billikens played unstructured and unrefined, sloppy enough that Crews labeled their execution as something that was done on an island rather than with cohesion. Meanwhile, against Texas A&M, they played their best game to date in this young season, showing a glimpse of their potential in this anticipated campaign that has included distraction upon distraction.
“I think these guys have been resilient with a lot of adversity this year,” said Crews, who took over in August after Rick Majerus departed because of a severe heart condition. “We’ve had more than our share with a lot of different situations. … That’s what it is. These guys understand that. We can only do the things we can do, and so they responded very, very well, I think, under some difficult times.”
This is a process, of course, and how SLU answers each valley moment will reveal much about this team’s character. Without Majerus, the Billikens will compete against psychological challenges as well as obstacles presented by the opposition. The theme won’t go away, and the tests will linger throughout the winter.
The Billikens must manage the outside noise if they are to make a second consecutive NCAA Tournament for the first time since earning berths in 1994 and ’95. The task won’t be easy, but it’s necessary to move on.
Afterward Monday, Evans and Remekun faced more questions about life without Majerus. The moment was a bit awkward, the answers vague. The exchange reflected the limbo this program faces as it comes to terms with its new landscape.
Majerus won’t return, so SLU must learn to confront adversity with confidence without him. Majerus won’t return, so SLU must build anew after six seasons of doing the same under his leadership. Majerus won’t return, so SLU must overcome hardship by learning about itself in the process.
“Coach (Crews) talks a lot about outside noise,” said Evans, who scored 19 points in the second half. “As a team, we know what we’re capable of, and we know what kind of team we have here and the quality of guys we have, so we can’t let one night (against Santa Clara) spoil the rest of the season. We know what we’re capable of, and hopefully we’ll achieve big things this year.”
It remains to be seen whether the Billikens will achieve big things. But Monday, they showed they could respond after their first taste of early season adversity.
Will there be more? Sure. Will they learn about themselves because of it? Absolutely.
“They’re a veteran team, won a lot of games,” Texas A&M coach Billy Kennedy said. “They played with more of a sense of urgency tonight than I thought they did against Santa Clara. … I just think the maturity of their team and their program at this time came through for them.”
It did. And because of it, this script was more pleasing.