Billikens not slowed by coaching staff changes

Billikens not slowed by coaching staff changes

Published Jan. 10, 2012 11:12 p.m. ET

ST. LOUIS — Saint Louis coach Rick Majerus has no other way to describe the Cleveland Cavaliers' hiring of former assistant coach Alex Jensen just four days before the Billikens began practice in October.

"I was LeBron'd," Majerus said in reference to NBA superstar LeBron James' stunning decision to leave Cleveland and sign with the Miami Heat.

Jensen was hired by the Cavaliers to coach their new franchise in the NBA Developmental League in Canton, Ohio. It was the first head-coaching job for the 35-year-old, who had spent the previous four years coaching under Majerus at Saint Louis following a lengthy pro career overseas.

Majerus was excited for Jensen's opportunity. He just wasn't thrilled with the timing.

"The thing that was sad was that the Cavaliers never even talked to me," Majerus said. "Like I told them, I got Lebron'd. They called to apologize for that, after they hired him, but that didn't do me any good. Al told me from the start but they never had the courtesy or class to contact me."

The Billikens had already seen changes made to their coaching staff when assistant Porter Moser left in April to become the head coach at Loyola-Chicago. Ironically enough, the man he replaced – Jim Whitesell – filled his spot as an assistant coach at Saint Louis.

The stunning departure of Jensen left the Billikens without two of their key assistants from the previous four seasons and an unfamiliar feeling heading into the season.

Majerus first had to quickly fill the void left by Jensen, a tough task to do with schools all over the country set to begin practicing in a couple of days. But he lucked out when former Army coach Jim Crews agreed to join his staff at the last minute.

"He was a nice guy about it," Majerus said. "He said, 'I don't know how long I'm going to do this, I'll help you out now', and we said we'd talk about it after the season. It was good luck, but Whitesell has also been real good and that was kind of interesting how that came about."

Both Jensen and Moser had been with Majerus since he arrived in Saint Louis in 2007. They recruited the entire current team and were big in the development of several players including seniors Brian Conklin and Kyle Cassity.

For a team hoping to reach the NCAA Tournament, it wasn't the start to the year they had planned for.

"I was really close to coach Jensen," Conklin said. "He has been here since I've been here. He was our big men coach and we were really close. He was a great coach, but you bring in Coach Crews, with so many years of head-coaching experience, it's not a huge drop off. He knows a lot of the same terminology.

"It was a great situation for coach Jensen. I told him don't feel bad at all. He said the hardest part was leaving us, which was nice to hear, but we would have pushed him out of here if he hadn't taken it, because being the head coach in the D-league is such a great opportunity for him."

Despite losing his two key assistants, Majerus actually made significant experience upgrades to his coaching staff with the two replacements.

The 52-year-old Whitesell was the head coach at Elmhurst, Lewis and Loyola-Chicago and brings 24 years of head-coaching experience with him onto the Saint Louis bench.

Crews has 24 years of head-coaching experience as well from his time at Evansville and Army. He also played on the last team to go undefeated, Indiana's 32-0 NCAA championship team coached by Bobby Knight in 1975-1976.

The two additions combined with returning assistant Chris Harriman, who is in his third season on the Saint Louis bench, formed a unique mix that instantly gelled under Majerus.

"We've really made good progress with adapting to each others' personalities and vocabulary and terminology," Majerus said. "Those guys are great coaches. I mean Crews was a legendary coach. He's the only guy here with two championship rings. Really, he's the only guy in our league with two championship rings, I would imagine.

"They just have a great passion for the game. I'm very lucky. I'm not saying this negatively for other staffs I've had, but this is by far the best staff I've had. I've got a great staff."

And the results have been noticed immediately. The Billikens take a 13-3 record into Wednesday night's home game against Temple and were recently ranked in both the AP and Coaches Poll for the first time since the 1993-94 season.

The Billikens appear to be contenders for the Atlantic 10 conference championship and are looking like a strong bet to make the NCAA Tournament this March.

And some of the credit deserves to go to Majerus and his assistant coaches. It wasn't the group he thought he'd have, but likely one he wouldn't trade.