For the past three years, there was a strong level of certainty regarding what to expect from Saint Louis University. Strong guard play, a commit to defense and a methodological offense with great experienced players on the floor. Now, there is something that the program has not had in the past three years, questions. Questions regarding who will start for the team, questions regarding who will step up after last season's starters graduated, and questions as to exactly to expect from this team. Yes, a lot of familar faces that Billiken fans have to associate with the program's three straight NCAA Tournament appearances are gone. Nearly all of the players recruited by the late, great Head Coach Rick Majerus are gone. This is Head Coach Jim Crews' program and his team now. This is will be a transition especially against an improved Atlantic 10 conference and Billikens fans are going to be asking a lot of questions for this season. (On the bright side, some people know what a Billiken is now, I think.)
Last Season in Review
The Billikens had high expectations last season. The team opened the season with six straight wins before losing to eventual Final Four team, Wisconsin, and No.1 NCAA Tournament Seed Wichita State, in their non-conference schedule. After the loss to the Shockers, the Bills went on a record 19 game winning streak. This was thanks in part to their strong defense that was a top 20 scoring defense allowing their opponents to 61.9 points per game. However, lacking in depth, the team begin to become exhausted due the number of minutes the starters were playing throughout the season. They lost four of their final five games including a first round lose in the Atlantic 10 conference tournament to St. Bonaventure finishing their regular season at 26-6. The team entered the NCAA Tournament on a down note, but responded by winning one of the most dramatic 2014 NCAA Tournament opening round games after being down by 16 Points against North Carolina State. However, the Billikens were once again eliminated for a third straight time in the round of 32, this time by the Louisville Cardinals.
Saint Louis loses all of their starters from last season. These players (McCall, Jett, Evans, Barnett and Loe) were the winningest group in school history and their loss is significant. However, the team will look to its bench players from last season and new freshman to attempt to carry to load and legacy that last year's seniors made on the program.
Point guard Austin McBroom is the only key contributor from last season that returns this season. McBroom averaged 7.3 points per game and 1.6 assists per game. He primary played in a backup point guard role last year providing McCall and Jett with rest. He played well in the early part of last season, but struggled during the last few games of the year. He is a good three-point shooter. However, he struggled when defenders forced him to his left hand, which is something that he will have to improve on this season. McBroom did lead the team in scoring during their exhibition game against Harris Stowe (an NAIA school), but exhibition games are not a true assessment of how someone could play this season due to the level of competition played. He will be a major part to the success or failure of the Billikens this season, the offseason likely helped him better acclimate to the SLU system and develop. He has to be consistent all season and not hit the proverbial wall that he did last season.
Villanova Transfer Ash Yacoubou is eligible to play after sitting out a season due to NCAA transfer rules (but was seen in this awesome Vine from last season, he is the one dunking the ball). Yacoubou is an incredible athlete and asserted his authority during the open practice the Bills had in October, he looked like a man among boys out on the floor. He was always in underutilized by Jay Wright at Villanova for some reason (seriously no one really could explain why Wright kept him on the bench). In his sophomore season at Nova, he led the Wildcats in three-point shooting percentage hitting 39.6 percent of his attempts. Yacoubou scored 16 points in the exhibition against Harris Stowe. Yacoubou will be a huge focal point of the offense, don't be surprised if gets double teamed by opposing team due to his athleticism.
Seniors, forward Grandy Glaze and center John Manning, will play a role in instilling the legacy of program and advice to the new freshman. Glaze is a high-energy player who can appear out of control on the court at times, but he has taken on a mentoring role for the freshman. Manning has underachieved during his time at SLU, he constantly gets into foul trouble and will have to be a stronger interior presence for the Billikens.
The sophomores on this team played sparingly last season. Forwards Tanner Lancona and Reggie Agbeko did not play much last season. Sophomore guard Mike Crawford only played 180 minutes last seaon
Lancona played more minutes as the season progressed and hit a key free throw in the victory over North Carolina State. Many compared him to former forward Cody Ellis due to his outside shooting ability. Yet, he does not have the inside scoring ability that Ellis possessed. However, a year of strength and conditioning will likely help out with his interior game this season.
Agbeko was injured much of last season and has not had to same time to develop like Lancona. It will be interested to see how he is utilized this season.
Crawford saw some time early in the season, but his minutes faded as the season progressed last season. He is a good perimeter shooter and should be an interesting option off the bench this season.
Now, the most important and most unknown to this season's team, the six freshmen. The freshman are: guard Marcus Bartley, guard Davell Roby, guard Miles Reynolds, forward Milik Yarbrough, forward Brent Jolly and center Austin Gillmann. It is very hard to assess what these freshmen will bring to the table. They will receive playing time, some will likely start. Roby started the exhibition game against Harris Stowe, but they are expected to contribute on some level this season .
Bartley is a tall guard who has been seen as a distributor. According to Chicago Hoops, "He excels at passing the ball and getting his teammates involved in the game. Bartley will see some time in the rotation this season.
Roby is an athletic 6-5 guard from Memphis, TN. Many scouts excited with his upside, but stated that he needs to work on his shooting ability. Roby played well in the exhibition game against Harris Stowe and will see playing time due to his athletic ability.
Reynolds is a combo guard that played at Whitney Young High School with Jahlil Okafur and Paul White. He helped lead his high school team to a 4A state title in Illinois. Reynolds is known for his toughness. ESPN Recruting services stated that he needed to work on his defense and that is a must if he is going to see significant time this season. However, reports claim that he did well in a closed scrimmage against the Memphis Tigers.
Yarbrough was the final member to commit to the 2014 recruiting class. "He is big-bodied and has a lot of flexibility to his game. He certainly knows where the bucket is, which is outstanding. On his visit, Milik really fit in well with our players, and he understands what we believe in here," said Head Coach Jim Crews after Yarbrough signed his Letter of Intent.
Jolly is a forward that is known for his pick-and-pop style of play. He will have to develop more of a post presence, but that will come with time. He has St. Louis roots, but played at Blair Academy in New Jersey for a prep year before committing to SLU.
Gillmann is a center from the St. Louis area. He is rather thin for a center and will likely redshirt this year.
This Year's Schedule
The Billikens will have a manageable non-conference schedule. They open the season on Nov. 15 against Southern Illinois-Carbondale. The team will be a part of the Corpus Christi Coastal Classic where they will play SEC opponent Mississippi State and then play against either Bradley to Texas Christian University.
The highlight of the non-conference season will be playing against the Wichita State Shockers at Intrust Bank Arena in Wichita. The Shockers, on their historic run, defeated the Billikens last season, 70-65, when the Shockers beat the Bills at their home, Chaifetz Arena.
The Atlantic 10 conference begins against the Rhode Island Rams on Jan. 3, 2015 at Chaifetz Arena. The toughest stretch of the Bills conference schedule will begin on Jan. 17th, 2015 when they will play the Dayton Flyers, Virginia Commonwealth Rams (Jan. 23) and the Massachusetts Minutemen (Jan. 31) in the span of four games. The Bills will play Dayton, George Mason, Rhode Island and VCU two times during their conference schedule. It should a challenge as Dayton and VCU are predicted in preseason polls in the top of the A-10 standings.
Saint Louis was predicted to finish 9th in the A-10 preseason poll and that is about right for a team that is in transition. However, there are plenty of A-10 teams in that have lost talent as well. Still, it is very difficult to replace five starters.
Anyone who claims they have a "pulse" or "inside track" on this team is flat out lying. There are just too many questions surrounding this team, but a lot will answered as the season progresses about the rotation and who will be key to the Bills success this year.The team will struggle at time especially against the top of the A-10, but have a relatively easy non-conference schedule to help build their confidence.
I see the Bills finishing above .500 (let's say 17-14 or 18-13) with a possible seed in the College Insider Tournament. It is a rebuilding year for the Bills, but this is important season to see how the program will rebuild from its recent success.