The Saint Louis Billikens’ ugly overtime loss to Rhode Island apparently hasn’t changed the mind of Butler coach Brad Stevens.
The 9th-ranked Bulldogs will travel to St. Louis for a highly anticipated matchup with SLU on Thursday night. Despite a recent bad loss to Rhode Island, Stevens expects the Billikens to be a formidable foe.
“It’s a really hard game for us, there’s no question about it,” Stevens said. “Most of the people I know picked Saint Louis to win the league at the start of the year and most of the people I talked to still believe that they are a team to beat in the league when its all said and done.
“They’ve had a great start to their season.”
SLU got off to a 12-3 start which included a nine-game winning streak and a dominating win over then-20th ranked New Mexico before losing back-to-back games at Temple and at home against Rhode Island last week.
Rhode Island is just 6-12 on the season and their only Atlantic 10 Conference win was the triumph over SLU. The Billikens led by as many as nine points in the second half and blew a late lead before losing in overtime.
Saint Louis rebounded with a pair of road wins at Duquesne and at St. Bonaventure to regain some momentum heading into Thursday night’s tilt. Butler is 17-3 on the season with wins over then-No. 1 and previously undefeated Indiana and No. 9 Gonzaga. The Bulldogs are 4-1 in A-10 play, losing only at LaSalle by one point last week.
“We’ve played five league games already and they’ve all been difficult but the sixth one will probably be the most difficult one of all, going to St. Louis and playing there,” Stevens said. “They have a great team and Jim (Crews) has done a great job with that team. We’ll have our hands full.
“To think about what they were able to manage with Mitchell out, it’s a testament to their coaching staff and to their players and a testament to the culture they’ve created there and ever since he’s come back obviously they’ve played great.”
The Billikens were without leading returning scorer and point guard Kwamain Mitchell for the first three months of the season due to a broken leg. But he’s returned and looked better and better by the game.
Cody Ellis is one of three SLU players scoring in double figures at 11.2 points per game while Mike McCall Jr. averages 10.8 points and Dwayne Evans adds 10.7. Mitchell is fourth on the team in scoring at 9.8 points per game but leads the team with 3.9 assists.
SLU lost to Santa Clara, Kansas and Washington in non-conference play and is on the outside looking in of most NCAA Tournament projections. Beating a team like Butler would certainly enhance their resume and the Bulldogs know they’ll get their best effort Thursday.
“They are playing very good basketball,” Stevens said. “They are a prideful group who has accomplished quite a bit. As far as the last two years, they’ve accomplished more than we have because they have been where we want to go, last year our team wasn’t able to get back to the tournament where we had been for six straight, so we know we have our hands full. They are a very good basketball team.”
SLU advanced to the third round of the NCAA Tournament a year ago and nearly knocked off top-seeded Michigan State. But coach Rick Majerus left the team due to health concerns over the summer and eventually passed away early in the season, leaving them with a void to fill on the bench.
Crews, who was serving as an assistant coach, took over as the interim head coach and the school plans to re-evaluate the situation at the end of the season. They could look to make a splash with a high profile coach or decide to keep Crews.
And if Stevens had any input on the decision, Crews would be coming back next year.
“I can’t say enough, Jim has done a great job,” Stevens said. “Not just a good job, a great job. I don’t know Jim as well as people might think because he’s from Indiana and coached at Evansville, I have met him on occasion and I’ve really liked him when I’ve met him.
“I certainly don’t want to get into other people’s business but I sure hope they remove that interim tag because when you watch this team on film and you know a Jim Crews team and how they play, you can’t be anything but impressed with them. Everything about this team is impressive.”
Butler will be the highest ranked team ever to play at the Chaifetz Arena and the first top-ten opponent to play SLU in St. Louis since North Carolina came to Scottrade Center in 2006.