Billikens overcome occasional shooting woes with solid defense
ST. LOUIS — The way the Saint Louis Billikens view their season, it is divided into three parts.
"We have the non-conference play, we have the conference play and then we have tournament play," senior guard Jordair Jett said.
The first part came to a conclusion Saturday afternoon with a convincing 75-55 victory over Yale (5-7) in front of 8,659 at Chaifetz Arena. The second part begins Tuesday night when Saint Louis opens Atlantic 10 conference play at Rhode Island. The third part comes in March assuming, of course, all goes according to plan in the first two parts.
So far, so good (but not great).
The Billikens finished non-conference play with their best start in 20 years, a 13-2 record that included a 4-0 mark on the road and their only losses coming in close games against top-15 teams, Wisconsin and Wichita State.
"That’s a great accomplishment for these guys," coach Jim Crews said. "I’m pleased."
He would be even more pleased if the Billikens had shot every game like they did against Yale when they made 11 of 23 3-pointers for a season-best 47.8 percent. But there have been far more outings like they had against Vanderbilt last Monday, when they hit only 3 of 19.
"Most things in life are contagious, both negatively and positively," Crews said. "(Shooting) does get contagious."
Sophomore guard Austin McBroom, starting for the first time (because Jett reported late), came out firing and his teammates followed. McBroom finished four of five on 3-pointers, Jake Barnett 3 for 4 and 6-11 forward Rob Loe 3 of 7. The trio led the Billikens in scoring, with Loe and McBroom turning in season-best efforts of 19 and 16 points, respectively, while Barnett finished with 11.
Barnett, in the starting lineup to provide a threat from long range, had made only 2 of 19 3-pointers in his previous three games. Through the rough stretch, Crews said that in practice Barnett has been shooting "better than I’ve ever seen him in the three years I’ve been here."
"Sometimes they fall, sometimes they don’t," Barnett said. "Tonight it was good they were falling."
Overall, the Billikens are shooting only 43.6 percent on all their shots, a number that needs to climb if they hope to do much in the next two parts of their season. Although not as much as you might think.
More than most teams, the Billikens can get away with shooting woes because of the way they play on the other end of the court. Make no mistake. This is a team that wins with defense. It’s also a veteran team with five seniors in the rotation who have bought into that concept.
"The 3-ball is important, but the most important thing is our defense," Barnett said. "We can control our defense every night. Against Vanderbilt (on the road last Monday), our 3-ball wasn’t falling but we still defended very well (and won, 57-49). On the nights it’s not falling, we have to control the things we can control."
They have controlled opposing offenses about as well as any team in the land. Saint Louis came into Saturday holding the opposition to 57.5 points per game, tied for the seventh-best mark in the nation. The Billikens have yet to allow an opponent to shoot 50 percent in a game.
For the first half, the Bulldogs were on the way with a 10-for-20 showing but they made just 10-of-26 shots after the intermission, and finished at 43.5 percent. Just another night at the office for SLU.
"Our guys are committed to defending every night," Barnett said. "You don’t have that with a lot of teams. It’s something special with us. It takes leadership. We have five seniors who understand what it takes to win. Going forward, our guys are mature enough that we want to keep defending."
"Our defense has been consistent," agreed Crews, who also offered another assessment that is difficult to disagree with.
"Our offense is probably behind our defense," he said.
But if it ever catches up, the second and third parts of SLU’s season figure to go even better than the first.
You can follow Stan McNeal on Twitter (@stanmcneal) or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.