Another round of teaching for Saint Louis' Majerus
The longer Rick Majerus coaches at Saint Louis, the younger his teams seem to get. In 22 seasons, the 61-year-old Majerus has never had a losing record. He may need a lot of overachieving to keep that streak alive given the kiddie corps he's guiding this year. There'll be no shortage of teaching points given a roster that has zero upperclassmen after junior guard Paul Eckerle was lost for the season with a knee injury. Four sophomores serve as the so-called veterans on a team that features six freshmen - one of them a redshirt. It's little wonder the Billikens have been picked to finish 12th in the 14-team Atlantic-10 Conference by coaches and media. Players have noticed practices grinding to a halt a lot more often this season than last, when Majerus began with seven freshmen but was able to lean on three seniors for leadership. "There's been a lot more stop and go," forward Brian Conklin said. "We're young, but we'll get it." Majerus used the word "daunting" twice and threw in one "disgusting" reference for good measure after watching his young players struggle until the second half to put away the opening exhibition against Arkansas-Fort Smith, a former junior college entering its first season in Division II. He's never had a team with no juniors and seniors - "very few coaches do," Majerus said - and his total of 11 underclassmen scholarship players is tied with Florida Atlantic and Liberty for the most in the country "We are the youngest team in America, and that's not the place you want to be," Majerus added. Just barely enough players, too, with top Australian recruit Cody Ellis not yet cleared by the NCAA. There was one walk-on candidate "and guess what, he made it," the coach said. So those dreams of elevating Saint Louis to the Top 25 remain on hold. Majerus' .722 career winning percentage (456-176) is tied for 13th-best among active coaches. But in his first two seasons with Saint Louis, he's a pedestrian 34-29. "I don't even think about that, I'm worried about fielding a team," Majerus said. "Believe me, I'm lucky I've got assistant coaches who can play in practice." Saint Louis was freshmen-heavy last season because none of the members of his hastily assembled first recruiting class, after Majerus was hired April 30, 2007, were good enough to stick. Seniors Kevin Lisch and Tommie Liddell III were the mainstays of a team that went 18-14 with a weak schedule outside the Atlantic-10. This season the pre-conference schedule has been upgraded with Georgia, Iowa State, Nebraska and either Notre Dame or Northwestern in the Chicago Invitational Challenge later this month, along with Missouri Valley threats Southern Illinois and Missouri State. "It's much tougher than what we'd want to have, given the circumstances of who we have," Majerus said. "But it'll make us better. It isn't just about this year or this game." Majerus has talent, it's just raw. "We've got a lot to work on," 6-foot-9 sophomore forward Willie Reed said. Of the sophomores, point guard Kwamain Mitchell averaged 14.1 points in conference play and was named to the A-10 all-rookie team, and Reed was a perfect 7 for 7 with 18 points against Maryland-Baltimore County. Conklin started 29 games, had 18 points against Nebraska and a trio of nine-rebound games. Guard Kyle Cassity had a nearly 3-to-1 assist to turnover ratio. Top freshmen include guard Jeff Reid, Kansas' Mr. Basketball; guard Christian Salecich, who played on the Australian Under-19 national team at the world championships in New Zealand last summer; and guard Justin Jordan, the second-leading scorer in Indiana with a 27.7-point average. Majerus plans to add two top recruits during the early signing period from Nov. 11-18. Next year, maybe he'll even be able to redshirt them. "I'm not complaining, I'm just trying to work my way through this," Majerus said. "We're caught in a bad situation, but I know this: We can improve every day."