ST. LOUIS — Jim Crews doesn’t need to look at the Atlantic 10 Conference standings to see the difference between the Saint Louis Billikens of last season and this season. All he has to do is watch some video.
Last week, for example, while preparing for Sunday’s game against La Salle, Crews checked out last year’s game against the Explorers, and was impressed by the savvy of his senior-laden squad. He said when La Salle scored with 38 seconds left in the first half, Billikens senior point guard Jordair Jett waited four seconds before he retrieved the ball.
"That means we get the last shot," Crews said.
With the shot clock off, Jett took his time getting the team in the offense before he eventually scored with time running out. Again, Crews saw the payoff of starting five seniors. Though the halftime horn was set to blare, the Billikens still hustled back into position on defense.
"They’re not going into a home run trot just because we scored with three seconds left," Crews said. "They’re doing the next play. That’s being on top of stuff. Those are the little things that don’t show up in the stat sheet."
Those are the kind of habits that come with experience, which last year’s team had in abundance. The Billikens put it to good use, too, by winning the conference regular-season title and advancing to the second round of the NCAA Tournament for a third straight season. This year has been a 180 with the Billikens relying on six freshmen and paying the price for their youth. With four games to go before the conference tournament, SLU (11-16, 3-11) is stuck in a three-way tie for last in the A-10.
But despite their place in the standings, the young Billikens are progressing.
Improvement was obvious in Sunday’s 68-64 overtime victory over a La Salle team that recently scored an impressive victory at first-place VCU, which had blown out the Billikens in their most recent game. While the W was more than welcome for a team enduring its third four-game losing streak, the way the Billikens won actually said more about their development.
For the first 10 minutes or so, the Billikens played poorly. They made numerous unforced turnovers, and nine minutes in they were being outscored by one player, La Salle’s Jordan Price. It would not have been surprising to see SLU, with only two wins since Christmas, continue to unravel. This is the time of year when losing teams find digging out of holes is harder mentally than physically. But SLU just kept playing.
The Billikens didn’t go on a hot run to wipe out a double-digit deficit. They just stuck to the process, making stops on defense — Price scored one point in the final 10 minutes of the first half — and staying with the offense. There was no immediate payoff, either. The Billikens finished the half with 19 points, their season low for a first half, and were fortunate to trail by only six.
"Coach said we weren’t playing good basketball, but we were fighting," freshman Davell Roby said about Crews’ halftime talk. "That’s what kept us in. We knew it could get better. We just knew we had to keep fighting. Stay with it and trust the system. Eventually, we started executing."
After the intermission, there was no magical transformation, either. The Billikens just kept fighting. And fighting. Remarkably, they closed to within two points on six occasions, but without evening the game.
Finally, with less than two minutes left, following a three-point play by Mike Crawford that cut the deficit to two points, SLU pounded. It turned two turnovers into five more points and took the lead for the first time since the second minute of the game.
Even though La Salle tied the game and SLU was unable to get off a good look for a winner in regulation, the Billikens controlled the overtime. Roby scored the first five points of the extra session and from there, they held on. After four tight losses in their past four home games, the Billikens had gotten over the hump.
"That’s exactly what we were saying to each other in the huddle: Let’s get over the hump," Roby said.
Despite what anyone might say, their success on Sunday will not automatically carry over on Wednesday when SLU visits Duquesne. But at least the Billikens showed what they’re capable of accomplishing when they listen to the coaches and stay the course. As easy as it might be to give up at this point, the Billikens’ priorities remain intact.
"We want to finish strong," freshman guard Miles Reynolds said. "Win as much as possible and make a run in Brooklyn (at the conference tournament). It’s been a long season, but the postseason is the most important part of the year. You see it so many times that teams toward the bottom make a push and might end up winning the conference tournament. So you never know.
"We’re going to play hard, continue to play our hearts out and try to get some wins."
Keep on learning and before too long, they’ll be making the same kind of heads-up plays as last year’s Billikens.