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Atlantic 10 Preview: Saint Louis Billikens

Travis Ford will lean heavily on two seniors during what figures to be a rough first year

NCAA Basketball: Brooklyn Hoops Classic-Louisville at Saint Louis Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

Saint Louis parted ways with Jim Crews in March and didn’t wait long to find his replacement. Former Oklahoma State coach Travis Ford was brought on before the month was over, and he inherits a sagging program. But Ford is no stranger to (much of) the A-10 after posting a .646 league winning percentage at UMass from 2005-08.

Here’s what he’ll be working with in his first year in the conference’s western outpost.

Roster

Who’s gone: Ash Yacoubou (Gr, F, 30.1 mpg), Miles Reynolds - transfer (Soph, G, 20.4 mpg), Milik Yarbrough - transfer (Soph, F, 19.1 mpg), Marcus Bartley - transfer (Soph, G, 14.6 mpg)

Who’s back: Reggie Agbeko (Sr, F, 24.3 mpg), Mike Crawford (Sr, G, 26.9 mpg), Austin Gillmann (Jr, C, 17.5 mpg), Aaron Hines (Jr, G, 17.2 mpg), Davell Roby (Jr, G, 20.4 mpg), Jermaine Bishop (Soph, G, 20.8 mpg), Matt Neufeld (Soph, C, 9.7 mpg)

Who’s new: Jalen Johnson (Fr, 6’7, F), Zeke Moore (Fr, 6’6, G/F), Elliot Welmer (RFr, 6’9, F).

Projected Lineup: G Jermaine Bishop, G Mike Crawford, G Davell Roby, F Jalen Johnson, F Reggie Agbeko

Outlook

You have to feel for Agbeko and Crawford. The two were freshmen on an SLU team that made its third consecutive trip to the NCAA tournament in 2013-14. Things looked nothing but up. Then the bottom fell out, as no new core emerged to replace the Jordair Jett-Dwayne Evans-Mike McCall-Rob Loe nucleus that won so many games for Crews and the late Rick Majerus.

As seniors, Agbeko and Crawford will finish their careers with a new coach and a depleted roster. They have to play the thankless-but-important role of good soldiers as Ford navigates through a transition year. He’s already begun to stockpile talent, landing a trio of transfers -- Javon Bess (Michigan State), D.J. Foreman (Rutgers) and Adonys Henriquez (Central Florida) -- that will be eligible next year, and signing Jordan Goodwin, a highly-regarded St. Louis prep product.

Agbeko, a good rebounder and defender, will be especially important. A Billikens team with little dynamic presence down low (346th offensive rebounding rate) loses Yacoubou and Yarbrough, two of its top forwards. The remaining frontcourt returnees are Gillmann, a perimeter-oriented big with potential as a rim protector (4.7 block rate), and Neufeld, who logged just 130 minutes in A-10 play.

Ford’s teams at Oklahoma State were often built around dynamic guards: think Byron Eaton, Marcus Smart and Phil Forte. Crawford, who is dealing with a hamstring problem, is a good defender with a well-rounded offensive game (career 36.0% 3P, 34.3% FTr) that’ll be Ford’s first focal point. He’ll be surrounded by Roby, who shot 39.2 percent on 74 three point attempts last year, and Bishop, the Billikens’ leading scorer in A-10 play (11.7 points per game). Losing Reynolds and Bartley cramps SLU’s back court depth.

Johnson may be the best ray of hope. The Class 3A Louisiana Player of the Year is a versatile forward that Ford expects to contribute right away. He was a late riser that had offers from UTEP and Southern Miss. Fellow freshman Moore is a local product that flew under the radar, drawing offers from several Missouri Valley schools.

The wins that are to be had on the schedule will likely be because of a solid defense. Ford generally built good defensive teams in Stillwater, and the Crews/Majerus defensive DNA still lingers. SLU finished No. 125 in defensive efficiency despite all the struggles last year, in no small part because of Agbeko and Crawford.

Had SLU continued on the trajectory Majerus started, they would’ve made tremendous role players on a team battling for the A-10 crown. Instead, they’re the first faces of the Ford era. It’s probably not what either expected, but they’ve got an opportunity to make an impact for the Billikens.