Crews to be tested with Billikens light on experience, heavy on youth
ST. LOUIS — The degree of difficulty has really gone up for Jim Crews.
Saint Louis has played in the NCAA tournament a school-record three straight seasons, but a fourth will be tough with so many go-to players gone. The third-year coach must replace all five starters from a 27-win team that won the Atlantic 10 for the second straight season and kept the program on the national map.
This is Crews’ 27th season as head coach and he’s hard-pressed to come up with a challenge like this. He joked about his wife’s assessment that he has a "selective" memory.
"Oh, I don’t know. I can’t remember one, but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t happened sometime," Crews said. "There’s been a lot of years."
Expectations are underwhelming for a team light on experience and heavy on youth. There are six freshmen among the 13 players and two seniors.
Speedy guard Austin McBroom, a junior, and Grandy Glaze, a senior forward, were part of the rotation. The 6-foot-6 Glaze has 26 career starts and averaged 3.8 points and 4.5 rebounds. The 5-foot-9 McBroom averaged 7.3 points and 21.5 minutes.
Crews is 55-14 in two seasons since stepping in for the late Rick Majerus. The departing class of A-10 player of the year Jordair Jett, Dwayne Evans, Rob Loe, Mike McCall Jr. and Jake Barnett totaled 93 wins.
He has a career record of 409-362 and has worked with far less talent at previous stops at Army and Evansville.
"It’s all part of the process," the coach said. "I’m enjoying it."
Players don’t seem to mind the clean slate, either. They’ll be driven by the insult of getting picked in the preseason to finish ninth in the 14-team A-10.
"I think it definitely bothers us," McBroom said. "Look at what we’ve done. Coach always tells us to ignore the noise and just keep playing."
Junior guard Ash Yacoubou, a Villanova transfer, could be a breakout player. Yacoubou starred in the lone exhibition against Harris-Stowe Tuesday night, with 16 points on 7 for 9 shooting, four steals and two assists in an 86-59 victory. He’s ready for what comes next.
The Billikens open at home Nov. 15 against Southern Illinois. Non-conference opponents include Wichita State and Mississippi State and the A-10 schedule opens Jan. 3 at home against Rhode Island.
"I didn’t feel nervous or scared or anything like that," Yacoubou said. "I sat out a whole year playing against the top 10 team in the country in practice every day. I’m not scared."
Things to watch for with Saint Louis, among 10 programs in the nation to win its opening round NCAA tourney game the last three years:
The exhibition was notable from an equal opportunity standpoint, with all 13 players in double figures in minutes. Crews used multiple combinations, mixing and matching at times at a breakneck pace.
"We played a lot of guys and did a lot of good things," Crews said. "A lot of things we’ve got to tighten up, just like any other team in the country right now."
Three sophomores, guard Mike Crawford and forwards Tanner Lancoma and Reggie Agbeko, step up as starters after minimal play last year. Crawford was 9 for 21 from 3-point range.
Brett Jolly, a 6-foot-9 forward, and Davell Roby, a 6-foot-4 guard, are the most likely freshmen to contribute right away.
Jolly started the exhibition ahead of senior John Manning, who’s been hampered a bit by an ankle injury. Roby had 12 points, three assists and three rebounds in 19 minutes.
Crews is not a fan of the NCAA rule that prohibits transfers from making trips. He makes it a point to be inclusive and was glad to see Yacoubou getting congratulatory texts back home when the Billikens clinched the A-10.
"If I was king for the day in the NCAA, I think those guys should be able to travel," Crews said. "I mean, you’re kind of ostracizing a guy almost sometimes. That’s tough emotionally."