Meet the Atlantic 10: Saint Louis Preview

Posted In News, The Reading List - By Alan Kelly On Friday, January 31st, 2014 With 0 Comments


Saturday, the Patriots travel to St. Louis to face the Billikens (19-2, 6-0) at 2:30 pm ET (televised nationally on NBC Sports Network). In visiting a #19 nationally ranked St. Louis team, the Patriots (7-13, 0-6) will play their fifth game west of the Mississippi this season, which strikes me as unusually high for a program that historically likes to stay on the east coast.

After a rare mid-season week off, largely due to the difficulties of scheduling for a conference with an odd number of teams (the schedule makers can’t wait to have you aboard, Davidson), Mason will try once more to get that illusive first win in Atlantic 10 conference play.  It won’t be easy, as SLU is not only one of the best defensive teams in the country, but also boasts one of the more hostile environments in college basketball in Chaifetz Arena.

In order to learn a little more about the Billikens, I asked Brian Haechen (@Brian_Haenchen), a columnist with InsideSTL and the beat writer for The University News, to answer a few questions.

masonhoops.com: Since this is the first-ever meeting between these two teams, can you tell us who’s expected to be in the starting lineup, and briefly describe each starter’s role on the team?

Brian: Saint Louis is one of three teams in the nation that has started an all-senior starting lineup (Mercer and Pacific are the other two).

Dwayne Evans (forward) is the catalyst for the Billikens’ offense. Despite being undersized, he has shown a willingness to battle for points and rebounds in the paint.

Jordair Jett (guard) has really developed into an offensive force this season. He’s a bruiser with the ability to slash through the lane and get to the bucket or step back and knock down jumpers.

Mike McCall Jr. (guard) has struggled a bit on offense this season, but he is very good defensively and has been starting to heat up over his last few games.

Rob Loe’s (forward) impact is not necessarily manifested on the scoresheet. He’s a 6-11 forward with the ability to step out and knock down 3-pointers, which creates plenty of matchup problems for opposing defenses and opens things up for his teammates.

Jake Barnett (guard/forward) is a strong rebounder with a tendency to knock down timely 3-pointers. Also, SLU has not lost since he entered the starting lineup against Rockhurst on Dec. 3.

masonhoops.com: The Billikens have a Fairfax County native on their roster, 6’11” junior center John Manning (Chantilly HS). How has he developed in St. Louis, and what does he add to the team?

Brian: John Manning is an interesting case study. He arrived with high-praise from the late Rick Majerus, who described him as a “diamond in the rough,” but injuries significantly hindered his development last season and were certainly one of the root causes for his limited playing time. This year, however, Manning has managed to remain healthy and is taking advantage when given the opportunity to spell Rob Loe at the 5-spot. His offensive game remains a work in progress, but he’s beginning to utilize his size to become more disruptive on the defensive end.

masonhoops.com: Aside from Manning, who are the key bench players and what do they contribute to the team?

Brian:

Austin McBroom is arguably the best player SLU has coming off of its bench. He is a legitimate long-range threat that helps spread the floor and create space inside for Evans. McBroom is still something of a liability on defense, but he is a key piece on offense.

Junior Grandy Glaze logs about 16 minutes per game and offers the team an energetic boost, especially on the glass—he’s averaging six rebounds per game.

masonhoops.com: What are the strengths of this year’s SLU team? Just how good is that defense (ranked #1 in the country by KenPom)?

Brian: This Saint Louis men’s basketball team is defined by its defense and experience.

The Billikens’ defense is not as flashy as Shaka Smart’s “HAVOC” or “The Fastest 40 Minutes” trademarked by Mike Anderson when he was at Missouri, but it is absolutely suffocating. The entire team is committed to playing hard on defense, which leads to transition buckets on the other end and has proven to be effective at wearing down teams over the course of the 40-minute period.

In terms of experience, this team is not one that’s going to get caught overlooking an opponent. Crews and the seniors make sure that the entire team has one singular focus—the next team on their schedule. That approach has been pivotal in their ability to sustain this recent success.

masonhoops.com: What are the weaknesses of this year’s SLU team?

Brian: It seems to have stabilized over the past couple of games, but SLU’s offense (especially from behind the arc) has been something of a liability over the past couple of seasons. There have been times when the players create problems for themselves by standing around and settling for bad shots, but most of the time it’s just a matter of open looks not falling.

masonhoops.com: Are there any key statistics or trends we could watch for on Saturday, that might indicate whether the game is going well or poorly for the Billikens?

Brian: Honestly, there isn’t necessarily a quantifiable trend that points to whether or not the Billikens are having a good game. If they’re sagging on one end of the floor, they compensate by upping their efforts on the other end.

It’s a bland, clichéd statement, but the Billikens just find ways to win.

A couple weeks ago against Fordham, Saint Louis shot just 38.5 percent from the field and went 6-for-24 on 3-pointers, but its defense stepped up, limiting Fordham to just 29 percent shooting en route to a 70-48 victory. The script was flipped a few nights later in Pittsburgh against Duquesne. The Dukes shredded the Billikens for 72 points on 50 percent shooting, but the offense stepped up with 10 3-pointers on 19 tries as part of a 76-72 come-from-behind win.

Yes, the quality of opponent should be taken into account, but SLU has shown the capability, both at home and on the road, to win games in a variety of fashions. It is pretty remarkable.

masonhoops.com: The Billikens were picked second in the A-10 preseason poll, and have more than lived up to those expectations, going 13-2 in out of conference play, sitting in first place in the league at 6-0, and achieving a #19 ranking in the AP Coaches’ Poll. But some critics might point to a weak non-conference schedule and say those wins are a little empty. What has the season thus far revealed about this year’s team? Can they win the A-10 title and make a deep NCAA run?

Brian: That loss on Dec. 1 to Wichita State is going to be the one that could hurt with respect to seeding when it comes to Tournament time. SLU basically had that game won late in the second half, but a litany of uncharacteristic errors down the stretch allowed the Shockers to steal it from them. Aside from that loss, there is some hidden value in SLU’s non-conference schedule, which included victories in four true road games and a 83-66 beatdown of Indiana State, which is considered by many as the team with the best chance of knocking off Wichita State in the Missouri Valley.

As for whether or not SLU can repeat as conference champion—the answer is a resounding yes. I think it will come down to the Billikens and VCU, with the team that is able to go into Amherst, Ma. and knock off the Minutemen taking the crown.

masonhoops.com: Legendary SLU coach Rick Majerus passed away early last season, and was replaced by assistant Jim Crews, first on an interim basis during Majerus’ illness, then permanently after his death. How much of a challenge does Crews face in following such a figure, and how well has he handled that pressure?

Brian: These first two teams will probably be the easiest Crews will enjoy during his tenure at Saint Louis. The plethora of upperclassmen between this year and last year’s teams has taken much of the burden and pressure off of him. We’ll get a much better idea of how well he’s able to handle the pressure next year when the likes of Evans, Jett, McCall, Loe and Barnett are no longer with the program. That being said, he has done a tremendous job of making sure this team is prepared for each game no matter the opponent.

masonhoops.com: Thank you for your time, Brian!

SAINT LOUIS BILLIKENS FACTS
Institution
Founded: 1818
Type: Private (Jesuit/Catholic)
Endowment: $970M
Location: St. Louis, MO
Campus: Urban
Students: 8,406 undergraduates
Men’s Basketball Program
Athletics Budget: $14.2M (2012)
Men’s Basketball Budget: $3.1M (2012)
Began Play: 1914
Joined A-10: 2005
A-10 Championships: 1
NCAA Appearances: 8 (Most recent: 2013)
NCAA Record: 5-9 (.357)
NIT Appearances: 18 (Most recent: 2004)
Head Coach: Jim Crews
Coaching Tenure: 2nd season
Coaching Record: 47-9 (.839)
Arena: Chaifetz Arena
Arena Opened: 2008
Arena Capacity: 10,600
Colors: Blue and White
Mascot: The Billiken
Student Section: SLUnatics
2013-14 Season
Preseason A-10: Picked 2nd
Current Record: 19-2 (6-0)
RPI: 22
Pomeroy: 23
Top wins: vs Indiana St., vs Richmond, vs St. Bona, at Dayton
Bad losses: None
George Mason Series History
Meetings: None
Record: N/A
Current Streak: N/A
Most Recently: N/A

Meet the Atlantic 10: An introduction to each team in George Mason’s new conference
VCUSt. Joe’sUMassURIFordhamGWSLU – Dayton – Duq. – St. Bona – Rich. – La Salle

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About - Alan Kelly is a 2010 and 2013 graduate of George Mason University and a former member of the Patriot Platoon. He had the memorable experience of being in the middle of the college decision process as George Mason's Final Four run unfolded. He currently resides in Northern Virginia.

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