SLU freshmen have hit the point where youth is no longer an excuse

Marcus Bartley is one of six freshmen who have played extensive minutes for SLU this season. 

Bill Barrett

ST. LOUIS — As Saint Louis University coach Jim Crews knows, coaching a team full of freshmen poses all sorts of challenges. They come in having to adjust to the difference in speed and physicality between high school and college. They also have to get accustomed to a long season, which often includes a lot more losing than they were used to at the prep level.

Around this time of year, there’s another dilemma: At what point is a young team no longer a young team? At some point, youth no longer is a legitimate way to rationalize poor performance. At some point, it’s just an excuse.

By now, the six freshmen who have played extensive minutes for SLU have had their eyes opened and their bodies bruised enough to know they’re not in high school anymore. Crews told them recently, in so many words, that they’ve grown up. It’s time to play the game, not play like freshmen.

"He told us a couple of games ago, you’re not freshmen anymore," said Milik Yarbrough, the best of the lot that’s not freshmen anymore. "That has nothing to do with (losing). It’s on us to get the win. We’re coming closer and a lot of games we’re in the game the whole time, we just can’t finish. That’s not youth. It’s just us not being able to finish."

Of course, Yarbrough might not understand that a lack of experience could be a big reason why the Billikens have struggled to finish games. But he’s thinking the way his coach wants.

As for Crews, in his sessions with the media, he still is asked often about his team’s youth and he doesn’t downplay it. He shouldn’t, either. Inexperience breeds inconsistency, and the only real cure for inexperience is experience. But talking like this to his players doesn’t help them.

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"Intellectually, you know what’s going on," Crews said. "But still, it’s about being accountable. Here’s what you need to do. It’s a blockout or it’s not a blockout. It’s a good pass or not a good pass. You’re in the right position or not in the right position. Some of that stuff comes fast and it is a new experience.

"But some of it is not now. We look at it as you’re doing it or you’re not doing it."

The Billikens aren’t doing enough to win very often. They have lost six of their last seven and will bring a 9-10 record (1-5 in conference) into Thursday’s game at George Mason. They almost knocked off first-place VCU last Friday behind a physical defense that impressed Rams coach Shaka Smart, but they also have dropped their past two road games, to Davidson and Dayton, by 35 and 16 points.

Making their conference challenge even more difficult is the wide spectrum of systems that teams use in the Atlantic 10. Crews calls it "bizarre" how the 14 teams employ so many different styles. VCU is all about pressure defense, while Davidson is a run-and-gun outfit. In George Mason, SLU will be facing what Crews called "the most physical team I’ve seen in the league so far." The Patriots are led by 6-foot-11 center Shevon Thompson, who is averaging a double-double with 13.2 points and 11.4 rebounds. "They’ve got some big guys. They press and they mix up their zones," Crews said. 

SLU will have had five days of practice for George Mason, so preparations should not be a problem. The Billikens had six days before they faced VCU and it showed in how efficient SLU was in handling the pressing defense.

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The schedule turns busy now with three games in a six-day stretch. But it shouldn’t be any more difficult than the first month of conference games. SLU’s five conference losses have come against the top five teams in the Atlantic 10 standings. Beginning with the Patriots, the Billikens’ next four games are against teams that are no better than .500 in conference play.

The records, however, don’t much matter to Crews.

"The one thing about the A-10 is if you want to play records, you’re going to be in big trouble," he said. "There’s not much difference between this and that (top and bottom). I said that when we’ve been on the top and we’re not on the top now and I’ll say it now. If we think we’ve played the tough guys and the tough guys aren’t coming, we’ve got a long ways to go in terms of mentality."

Oh, they have a long ways to go, all right. But they’ve come far enough that they’re no longer young. That’s how they’re trying to look at it, anyway.

You can follow Stan McNeal on Twitter at @StanMcNeal or email him at stanmcneal@gmail.com.