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Saint Louis turns high expectations into average opening win

The A-10 favorite won its opener, but some disturbing trends from last season remained.

NCAA Basketball: 2K Classic-Providence vs Saint Louis Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

There are high expectations surrounding the Saint Louis but its opening night was a little uneven. SLU led by 16 at the half and opened up a 22-point lead with 14 minutes to go, and then old bad habits resurfaced.

Third-year coach Travis Ford has a roster that is all of his making and has great promise. Senior Javon Bess was named to the A-10 preseason all-defensive team and sophomore Hasahn French was part of last season’s all-rookie team. Sophomore Jordan Goodwin is a former ESPN top-100 recruit from nearby Althoff Catholic High School thataveraged 11.5 points per game last year.

This year, SLU landed Drexel transfer, and former Missouri Tiger, Tramaine Isabell and local star and top-100 recruit Carte’Are Gordon, as well as Missouri’s prep player of the year Fred Thatch. All that talent helped land the Bilikens as the A-10’s preseason favorite, setting up a big year for Ford.

However, SLU spent last season struggling with long distance shooting and making free throws, and whether improvement comes in that area is a key question this season. In 2017-18 the Billikens made just 32.3 percent of their three-point attempts and 65.2 percent from the charity stripe. SLU finished 17-16 with a 2-7 record in games decided by five or fewer points. Missing threes and frees will create that kind of a poor, tight game record.

Tuesday night, the Billikens built that 22-point lead with stingy defense and rebounding. They created 13 SEMO turnovers in the first half, and outrebounded the Redhawks 23 to 14.

SLU could not, however, utilize it superior size. SEMO packed in their defense and according to Ford they were “daring us to shoot threes.”

SLU obliged, launching 25 long distance shots, but making just four. As SEMO began to find its sea legs and make some shots (over 55 percent in the second half) the game became competitive. The Redhawks continued to send the Billikens to the free-throw line, where SLU made just 19-of-33 and SEMO cut the 22-point margin to five.

Ford said his team was just average Tuesday night, but has a chance to be great.

“It wasn’t a thing of beauty, but it is better to win and learn lessons than to lose and learn those lessons,” said Ford. “We are an average team right now that can be great eventually. It is good for us to be exposed right now.”

Four Billikens reached double figures. Bess and Isabell each netted 18 points and Goodwin scored 11. French led the team with 12 rebounds and four assists.

Ledarrius Brewer, a member of last season’s Ohio Valley All-Freshman team, led SEMO with 18 points and seven rebounds. Freshman guard Alex Caldwell gave Rick Ray’s team a lift scoring 14 points and handing out four assists, but Ray said his team had to grow in toughness.

“You can tell these millennials what’s going to happen til the cows come, but they don’t believe you until they go out there and fail,” said Ray. “I’m just proud of these guys that they grew to trust one another and competed so well in the second half.”