Majerus on minds of Billikens, Aggies
SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) -- New Mexico State coach Marvin Menzies watched video of Saint Louis all week, and a common theme kept showing up on every play he analyzed.
"You can see Rick Majerus all over them, throughout the fiber of how they play," said Menzies, who coached against Majerus' Utah teams while at San Diego State from 1999 to 2003. "There's no question that they're playing inspired by him, and especially on the defensive end."
More than three months since his death, Majerus' style still lives on through his players.
Saint Louis (27-6) will be looking to carry on the memory of the affable and animated coach in the way he so often made his mark in March: with a deep run in the NCAA tournament. The fourth-seeded Billikens must first find a way to get past 13th-seeded New Mexico State and 7-foot-5 freshman Sim Bhullar on Thursday.
"The way we play, we play 40 minutes, from the tip to the end with hard work and competitiveness of our team. That kind of spread from Coach Majerus," said guard Kwamain Mitchell, the first player Majerus recruited to the school. "He's so competitive. He hated losing. And that's one of the things he preached and he coached. And he got everybody on the same page to coach and play the way that he does."
Majerus left the team before the season because of health concerns. He died of heart failure in December at age 64. There's been no drop in production from the team assembled by Majerus, who ended the school's 12-year NCAA tournament drought last spring.
Jim Crews has taken over and led the Billikens to the Atlantic 10 regular season and conference crowns. Saint Louis also has tied the 1988-89 team with 27 victories, including a school-record five wins against Top 25 programs this season.
Players said they still think about Majerus daily, and all they need to do is look at the patch on their jerseys for a reminder -- a ribbon with the word "Coach." A banner with the same emblem hangs in the rafters at the team's home in Chaifetz Arena.
Crews fondly recalled a team dinner last March in Columbus, Ohio, where the Billikens beat Memphis and later lost in the round of 32 to Michigan State. Majerus cracked jokes and kept everybody loose.
"That was a pretty cool experience and everything," Crews said.
Crews, who knew Majerus for more than 30 years, sees his late friend every time his players take the court: from the way they guard screens to their scrappy attitude, which helped lead the A-10 in scoring defense at just 58.1 points per game.
"A kid does something very intelligent or he does something very tough or someone does something very unselfish, Rick would always have a smile on his face," Crews said. "I think he promoted power of team as well as anybody."
Standing in the way of a storybook Saint Louis run is one of the most imposing frontcourts in the country.
Besides Bhullar, a freshman from Canada who is 7-foot-5 and 355 pounds, the two-time defending Western Athletic Conference champion Aggies (24-10) also have forwards Renaldo Dixon (6-foot-9) and Bandja Sy (6-foot-8). Together the trio has helped New Mexico State pile up a school-record 186 blocked shots.
"I think he changes the whole game for us and other teams as well, because a lot of teams are not used to seeing that big of a size in there," said guard Daniel Mullins.
Senior forward Tyrone Watson, the team's third-leading scorer at 10.8 points per game, injured his ankle March 7 against Louisiana Tech. He is questionable to play, Menzies said.
While Majerus' memory is motivating Saint Louis, all the Aggies need for inspiration is a history lesson.
New Mexico State also was a No. 13 seed last season, losing 79-66 in the first round to Indiana. The Aggies were eliminated by Michigan State in the first round in 2010 and haven't won a tournament game since 1993.
"To eventually win a game or two or three or four would mean a lot to me," said Sy, who is a senior. "And especially with that team. I really think we have the potential to do something here."