As we enter the home stretch in conference play everybody is going to be looking for this year's Florida Gulf Coast. That's why we've put together "Cinderella Watch" to profile all the mid-major teams you should know before heading into March.
Atlantic 10 Conference
Overall Record: 25-2
Conference Record: 12-0
Key Wins: vs. Virginia Commonwealth (23), vs. George Washington (28) and at Saint Joseph’s (38)
Key Losses: vs. Wisconsin (5), vs. Wichita State (9)
Average RPI Win: 145
Average RPI Loss: 7
NCAA Tournament History: 8 Appearances (Last Appearance in 2013), 5-9
If there is one phrase to describe this year’s Saint Louis Billikens it is nail-biting. Six of their 25 victories have been by five points or less this year. They are on a 19 game winning streak, but they have had some very unnerving moments during that streak. Still, they find a way to win, including a 10-0 road record.They are one win away from clinching the regular season title for the second straight year, and hold the third longest winning streak in the country.
Defense is what the Billikens pride themselves on and what generates their offense. They have the second best three-point field goal defense in the nation, holding their opponent to 26.7 percent shooting from beyond the arc. They also have the 12th best scoring defense in the nation, holding opponents to just under 60 points a game. The team has maintained this "defense first" philosophy even after changing coaches.
Jim Crews is in his second year as head coach of the Billikens since taking over after Rickk Majerus passed away on Dec. 1, 2012; he previously served as the head coach of the University of Evansville and Army. Last season, he led the Billikens to a school-record 28 victories, Atlantic 10 regular season and tournament championships and a second straight NCAA Tournament bid. For his efforts during an emotionally taxing season, he was named National Coach of the Year by the National Association of Basketball Coaches and Sporting News. This season, Crews picked up right where he left off with a core group returning from last season’s team.
The Billikens have not lost since Dec. 1 when they lost at home to the Wichita State Shockers. SLU’s only other loss has come against Wisconsin another RPI Top 10 team. The Billikens have had some close games against some lower rated teams and somehow struggle against them.
The Billikens’ offense has a huge disparity from its defense, ranking 144th according to Kempom.com adjusted offensive rankings. Despite this statistic, they convert in key moments, which has saved the Billikens on more than one occasion. This is one of the key reasons they are ranked 10th in the nation by the Associated Press and USA Today Coaches’ Poll.
Key Player: Jordair Jett
It is difficult to choose one player, but there is one player on this team that has single-handedly won games for the Billikens, and that is Jordair Jett. Jett hit two game-winning free throws against the Rhode Island Rams and had a game-winning drive against the La Salle Explorers.
Jett, a senior from St. Paul, Minn., primary known as a lock-down defender for most of his college career, has turned into a scoring machine this season for the Billikens. He is an aggressive driver and distributor for Saint Louis and creates opportunities for his teammates. However, when the time comes, he will take over a game. During the La Salle game, he scored 15 of SLU’s last 17 points. He has taken some of the load off of forward Dwayne Evans, and gives the Billikens a second scoring threat.
However, one of the most frightening aspects of Jett’s game, which give opposing coaches nightmares, is that as the game goes on, he gets stronger. Like a running back, Jett goes even harder in the second half than the first. It is something that is not seen in many college players around the country. Against George Mason, he scored all but one of his team-high 25 points in the second half and overtime. He seeks out contact and will go after an opposing players with every opportunity that he has in a game.
He is second in the Atlantic 10 in scoring in league play, averaging 18.1 points per game, and is second in the league with 5.0 assists per game. Jett is having a special year for the Billikens and will likely win Atlantic 10 Player of the Year if he maintains this effort.
Why They Will Succeed In March
Saint Louis is one of only three teams in the country to start five seniors. The starters (Jett, guards Mike McCall Jr. and Jake Barnett, forwards Dwayne Evans and Rob Loe) are a close group who have played together for three to four years. Evans was a force last season and continues to be a huge part of the Billikens puzzle. McCall and Loe have been coming on lately, and Barnett provides a three-point scoring threat.
They have been to the round of 32 twice and are the winning-est group in school history, but it's time to move past that. They want to get to the Sweet 16 and beyond. It would be the ultimate tribute to their former Head Coach Rick Majerus.
This season they find different ways to win each night, and that is all a team can do during the NCAA Tournament, survive and advance. The team knows what it takes to compete against some tough teams and will find a way. They might not be fancy or stylish, but they play a tough, grind out type of basketball that will get them very far in March.