Returning Billikens already are putting a bounce in Crews’ step
ST. LOUIS — The Saint Louis Billikens are losing their entire starting lineup that won a second straight Atlantic 10 championship this season, but expectations for next year will remain the same.
"What we believe in is a championship attitude, a championship mentality, being a gentleman, doing things with class," coach Jim Crews said Wednesday afternoon, five days after SLU’s season ended with a 66-51 loss to Louisville in the NCAA Tournament. "You graduate, you help other people, you serve other people and you’re competing for championships. That’s our bar, period."
Maintaining that level in the W-L column will be a challenge as the Billikens try to replace their top four scorers and more than 70 percent of their offensive production from the most successful class of seniors in the program’s history.
The returning players, however, already are making a mark on their coach. Crews said he had been dealing with typical postseason fatigue until he met with his returning players Tuesday.
"I’m really excited from what I heard in those meetings and how they responded," Crews said. "I knew I was going to get excited eventually, but I thought I would have to be tired for a little bit. But really, they gave me a little hop in my step."
Next year’s crew faces a difficult time in a conference that figures to be about as strong as this season, when six of its 13 teams reached the NCAA Tournament.
Sophomore guard Austin McBroom, who averaged 7.3 points in his first season after transferring, will be the leading returning scorer. None of the other returners — a group that includes junior Grandy Glaze and freshmen Reggie Agbeko, center John Manning and guard Mike Crawford — averaged more than Glaze’s 3.8 points or 4.5 rebounds.
Ash Yacoubou, a transfer from Villanova, will be ready to make an impact next season, and the Billikens also will look toward an incoming freshman class that includes 6-foot-11 center Austin Gilmann from Oakville, 6-10 forward Brett Jolly, who is attending prep school in New Jersey, and 6-2 guard Miles Reynolds, who helped Whitney Young to an Illinois state title last weekend. The Billikens also have one scholarship still available for next season.
Before turning his focus to the future, Crews spent much of his postseason press conference reflecting on the accomplishments of the five seniors — Jordair Jett, Dwayne Evans, Rob Loe, Mike McCall Jr. and Jake Barnett. The group won consecutive conference championships and reached three NCAA tournaments and also had to deal with tragedy off the court when coach Rick Majerus died in 2012.
On what Crews told them after the last game: "They got the most out of their careers they could get out. They gave themselves a chance and they came through with championships and a lot of wins and going to the tournament three times. You always want to do a little bit better because we get a little greedy, but there’s only one happy camper at the end of this every year."
On whether the postgame locker room was very emotional: "Not really. Our guys are not a real emotional group. It was probably more emotional for me than them. They’re pretty stout."
On what made the seniors special: "It’s probably a lot of little things. They went through a lot, and when you go through a lot of different things and stay together, it really builds strong relationships. When it’s all said and done, no matter what vocation you’re in, if the journey is not about relationships, you’re probably missing the boat. Because no one really gives a rip about how many trophies you get or what kind of car you drive or if you were first team or third team. A guy cares if you’re a good teammate or not." These five seniors, Crews added, were excellent teammates.
On his most memorable game of the season: "The UMass game (a 64-62 victory in the regular-season finale). Seeing the kids’ reaction after the game. They are not very emotional, but they were fired up and that was neat to see. It’s your last day and you’re playing for a championship and we’d lost three in a row. So that was pretty cool."
On how much he’ll miss the departing players: "I don’t miss seniors that much. College and the basketball experience are supposed to prepare them for a bigger and better future. They’re moving to a different chapter. I’m excited for those guys. They’ll do bigger and better things in life than being a good basketball player and playing on good teams."
They’ve also left some large shoes to fill for the guys coming back.
— Crews skillfully ducked the question when asked to pick a favorite for the national championship: "Wichita State’s the best team in the country and they’re not in the tournament. That’s how the tournament works. I’ll tell you what, they’re flat-out really good, really good."
— Crews admitted fatigue might have played a part in SLU’s late-season stumbles. "Every team’s tired, but we got caught where we got guys, sometimes we stretched the minutes. Short term, maybe that’s how we won a championship. Sometimes it catches up to you."
— The Billikens’ non-conference schedule next season will include home games against Vanderbilt and Southern Illinois. They’ll travel to Wichita State and also play at Indiana State.
You can follow Stan McNeal on Twitter at @stanmcneal or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.