ST. LOUIS — The NCAA Selection Committee found a happy medium with its placement of the Saint Louis Billikens. It rewarded them for their overall body of work (26-6 record, regular season Atlantic 10 champions, 19-game win streak, Top 10 ranking) by giving them a 5-seed, but it still recognized their less than spectacular finish (lost four of last five) by pitting them against either North Carolina State or Xavier in Round 2 with red-hot Louisville looming over the weekend (assuming Manhattan does not pull the upset).
“I was shocked” senior guard Mike McCall Jr. said of his team’s lofty seeding. “I told Jordair and the other guys, ‘Man, I thought we were going to be a 7- or 8-seed.’ But we got a 5-seed and that’s good. Two teams that are actually good in NC State and Xavier, so we’ll see who wins and go on from there.”
Saturday’s loss to St. Bonaventure in the Atlantic 10 Tournament has the senior-laden Billikens refocused. When asked if the loss was perhaps a blessing in disguise, giving the team a few extra days of rest, Rob Loe declined, saying they “have that fire” after falling short in their quest to compete for another championship in Brooklyn.
“We wanted to play for another championship, but…we didn’t do what we wanted to do,” he explained. “We’ve got that fire in our practices. We just had a great practice today, so we hope we can perform for the rest of the week and perform better on Thursday.”
“All we can do is improve,” senior Jake Barnett later added. “We have a chance to compete in a national tournament—not many teams can say that. So, while we’ve made mistakes, we have the chance to improve upon them. Thank goodness that it wasn’t our last game and that we still have the opportunity to win a national title. Our guys are motivated in that and want to win.”
All the players who spoke to the media Sunday night at Lorenzini’s certainly said the right things—and there was certainly a lot more positive energy in the room. However, the turnovers, the stunning lack of killer instinct and sporadic offense are all problems that were being discussed earlier in the season. Instead of being alleviated, they’ve actually gotten worse, exacerbated by the team’s lack of depth which has, in my opinion, accelerated a regression on defense, which only magnifies this team’s other deficiencies.
That being said, this team has proven that two of those flaws can be remedied and the third should tag along with it. No, they cannot add anymore depth. The opportunity to get the underclassmen (specifically Crawford, Agbeko and Lancona) significant minutes passed much earlier in the season. They can, however, cut down on the turnovers and bring some stability to the offense.
Let’s start with turnovers—they’re easy to fix. Saint Louis has to get back to being ball strong, especially under the basket where opposing defenders have basically been able to poke the ball free with one foul swoop. The passes have to be crisp and Jett must cut down on the out-of-control drives to the basket. Like I said, this is all pretty intuitive stuff, so I’ll leave you with these quotes and move on…
“We turned it over too much, which translates to not getting back on defense,” Crews said “That’s not just a one game thing. Even when we were winning, that’s something that got a bit away from us in terms of being ball strong. That’s an issue. They tie into each other.”
“Turnovers aren’t common for us. We’ve been turning it over a lot the last seven games,” Barnett said. “Even the games we were winning we weren’t playing our best basketball. So, hopefully moving forward we can look at ourselves and improve. Those are things we can do. For us, it’s a motivator knowing that if we do improve on those, we have a chance to win and beat some good teams.”
On offense (aside from the aforementioned turnovers), the Billikens have to buy back in to the gameplan. Crews and his staff proved last season that they’re among the best in the nation at having their team ready each night, but for whatever reason, this year’s team has had a difficult time buying in for an an entire 40 minutes.
The Bonaventure game provided a perfect example.
Early in the first half, SLU looked like a well-oiled machine. It was whipping 4-5 passes around the arc on each possession before ripping apart the Bonnies’ defense to get the ball inside (for the record, that worked for La Salle too). Had they stuck with that gameplan, the Bonnies are buried by halftime. Instead, they went in the complete opposite direction, opting for 3-pointers and bad-angled jumpers early in possessions which quickly cooled the offense.
“We did a lot of good things offensively, particularly in the first half,” Crews said. “We were really pretty darn good, but then we had a period where we took four-straight shots after zero or one pass, when we kind of had it where if we were making them play defense, we were getting exactly what we wanted.”
Saint Louis will have the time to exorcise a few of those demons ahead of Thursday’s game, but the actual preparation time is cut down significantly with Xavier and North Carolina State playing in one of the First Four games at 8:10 Thursday night in Dayton.
Both teams present a logistical nightmare for the Billikens all on their own and the shortened window for game planning further complicates things.
“[We will start] two gameplans,” Crews explained. “It makes it dicey though because you can’t work on it with the players a whole lot, because if you’re working on one tomorrow and Tuesday, you’re wasting your time with it. So, it’s a unique dynamic with it.”
“I think we’ll do a little bit on both teams and then when we find out on Tuesday we’ll focus on the team,” Loe said. “Our coaches do a great job just knowing everyone that we could have the possibility of playing, so it’s on them and they can relay the information on to us.”
NC State, which finished seventh in the ACC, is led by reigning conference Player of the Year TJ Warren. The 6-foot-8 sophomore forward finished the regular season averaging nearly 25 points per game with 7.2 rebounds and 1.1 assists. Ralston Turner averages 10.2 points per game and shoots nearly 37-percent from behind the arc. Opposing the Wolfpack in Dayton will be a former Atlantic 10 member, the Xavier Musketeers.
Their leading scorer, Semaj Christon, is averaging 17.1 points per game with a .477 field goal percentage. He played 42 minutes in Xavier’s 77-66 overtime triumph over the Billikens last season, posting 20 points, seven boards and seven assists. Junior forward Justin Martin is a dangerous scorer—netting nearly 12 points per game—while 6-10 center Matt Stainbrook accounts for 10.4 points and 7.3 rebounds per outing.
“This is just another curveball. This season, we’ve dealt with adversity in certain things and this is just another one to add to the list,” Evans said of only having a couple days to prepare for their first opponent. “Hopefully they’ll be a little tired. That’d be great. But it doesn’t mean a whole lot to us. We’ll come out the same either way.”
The play-in game, which is set to be televised on truTV will tip-off in Dayton around 8:10 p.m.
The winner will advance to face Saint Louis on Thursday in Orlando at 6:20 p.m.. That game will be shown on TNT with Brian Anderson, Dan Bonner and Kristine Leahy on the call.
In addition to writing weekly columns for InsideSTL, Brian Haenchen also covers Billikens basketball for The University News. Check out his 2014 NCAA Tournament coverage at HanksSportsBlog.com. Follow him on Twitter @Brian_Haenchen.