Saint Louis University basketball fans are ecstatic about next year’s team, but first year head coach Travis Ford is working hard on the current edition of Billiken basketball.
Ford’s recruiting class for 2017-18 is loaded, but surviving 2016-17 is the top priority right now. The team has opened the season winning two of three games, but after Thursday’s win over Eastern Illinois (1-2), Ford said his team is learning lessons.
“As I told our team,” said Ford. “It’s always better to win and learn than to lose and learn, but we learned some valuable lessons tonight. We were terrible in practice yesterday, and then we started that way tonight. Another lesson is that you can be down by 12 and you can still fight back if you have the right attitude.”
Ford didn’t talk to any of his coaches at half time to confer, but instead went straight to the locker room and let his players know that their effort and attitude were unacceptable.
The second year coach has been emphatic that his team has to be perfect in the little things or they won’t be successful. He said attitude and belief structure are currently the biggest challenge.
“It’s amazing when you get desperate,” Ford said. “It’s amazing when your back’s against the wall, what you can do. Now, can we do that for 40 minutes? That is our biggest challenge for our basketball team. The way we played defense the second half is the only way we’re going to have any success.”
SLU trailed 44-33 at the half but held the Panthers to 25 second half points. EIU didn’t score a point for the first six minutes of the second half as the Billiken defense went to work. Point guard Jermaine Bishop’s defense against his counterpart Cornell Johnston was particularly telling.
EIU’s junior guard had 14 first half points but scored just four after the break. As a team, the Billikens forced the Panthers into shooting a miserable 23.5 percent the pivotal second half. To that point, after making ten three pointers in the first half, EIU connected just twice in 11 tries after the intermission.
“Jermaine dug in,” said Ford. “I wasn’t happy with Jermaine at half time and he knows it. He got a little upset and a little upset with me, which is great. His defense was the difference in the game.”
Ford also said he’s also starting to figure out his team and what things motivate which players. His players are starting to understand him too.
“My players are starting to figure me out,” he said. “I can deal with a lot of things, but I can’t deal with not playing with great passion, with not playing hard. Not to play every second all out, doesn’t sit well with me.”
Senior guard Mike Crawford says Ford’s coaching style is far different from the former coaching staff. While praising both former coach Jim Crews and Ford, Crawford says there is a different energy level this year.
“The biggest difference is just the energy every day in practice,” said Crawford. “Coach Ford has brought a whole new life to the program. It’s always positive. We’re busting our butt every single day, but we know we’re getting better every single day.”
Ford’s final message to his team at half time was, “I want to see what you’re made of.” He was happy with what he saw.
Through three games, a trio of Billikens are averaging double figures in scoring. Junior guard Davell Roby (16.3 ppg) is the vocal leader of the team. Without a true center, senior forward Reggie Agbeko (16.0 ppg, 10.3 rpg) is emerging as a true post presence. Redshirt freshman Elliot Welmer is also developing into an effective “stretch four,” averaging 12.3 points per game and leading the team with six three-pointers.
Going forward, Ford has an opportunity to learn about his team as they take a step up in competition. SLU plays BYU in Las Vegas, and in the weeks after will play Kansas State and Wichita State before launching into A-10 play.