BROOKLYN — The Saint Louis Billikens play a seven-man rotation. In Brooklyn at the Atlantic 10 Tournament, they had to play four games in four days. Yet late in the conference championship game against St. Bonaventure, it was the Bonnies who were gassed. And Saint Louis was in position to put them away.
Billikens coach Travis Ford says he takes note of how opponents enter a huddle during timeouts. As St. Bonaventure entered the under eight-minute media timeout, Ford saw a team that was spent. His team had whittled what was a 15-point Bonnies lead down to two, and he told his team in the timeout that they had to make their move right then. That move was to, as he put it, “put the pedal to the metal.”
“You don’t worry about being fatigued when you’re laser-focused and you’re focused on doing your job,” Ford said after the championship game, a 55-53 Billikens win. “I don’t think these guys had time to think. I think they had more to prove.”
Yes, Saint Louis is well conditioned. So are a lot of teams. That wasn’t going to be enough in the conference tournament and it’s not going to be enough if the Billikens hope to knock off Virginia Tech in the First Round of the NCAA Tournament.
If Saint Louis is going to make a run in March, it will be because of its coach’s intuition and its players’ resolve.
That’s been the case all season.
Saint Louis entered 2018-19 as preseason Atlantic 10 favorites. It was supposed to blend the experience of guys like seniors Javon Bess and Tramaine Isabell with the raw talent of freshman Carte’Are Gordon.
Just three days before practice started, junior transfer Luis Santos was suspended indefinitely for a violation of team rules. He later withdrew from the university. Saint Louis also lost Ingvi Gudundsson, brother of A-10 player of the year Jon Axel Gudmundsson. Then it was the prized recruit and backboard shatterer Gordon. On top of all of that, Dion Wiley missed time in December with an injury.
“Guys could have quit,” Isabell said, thinking back to the rough times. “I mean, some locker rooms might.”
And then the conference season started and, even though the Billikens were down to essentially a seven-man rotation, all seemed right again. Saint Louis raced out to a 5-0 league record, complete with a win over Saint Joseph’s, who was picked to finish second.
That’s when the losing started. It was four in row, with three of them coming by four points or fewer.
From then on, there was never really a point where Saint Louis finally seemed to put it together. There was an impressive win over Dayton, but that was followed up with a 30-point drubbing to Saint Joe’s. Then back-to-back close losses at the Flyers and at VCU, followed with two huge home wins over George Mason and Duquesne. Three days later, the Billikens closed the regular season with a loss to St. Bonaventure, ending their hope for a double-bye in the conference tournament.
Bess’s production waxed and waned throughout the year as he led his team in minutes despite being restricted by an ankle injury. Not coincidentally, Bess failed to surpass 10 points in five conference games this year, and Saint Louis lost four of them. Going into Brooklyn, he was shooting just 31 percent from the field in his last six games. He’d need to play 35-plus minutes, four days in a row. And if he wasn’t going to be effective, then Isabell, who seemed to raise his game when his team needed it most, would have to be other-worldly.
No one could have been blamed for counting out the tournament’s six seed. It was a lost season, partly due to factors out of their control, but lost nonetheless.
Their first-round win over Richmond was hardly notable and their quarterfinal win over Dayton was surprising, but appeared to just be a weird championship week blip. In the semis, they went into halftime tied with two seed Davidson in an ugly game, and it felt like it would all catch up with the Billikens. There was no way they could gut out one more half of basketball against a rested Wildcats team that had arguably the two best players in the conference.
Instead, Saint Louis came out of the halftime locker room and blew the doors off Davidson, outscoring them 38-15 in the second half to cruise into the title game.
Sunday against St. Bonaventure seemed like another logical time for the Billikens’ legs to give out.
“I was just hoping we had enough in our tank,” Ford said after the game. “We’re going to have to dig, dig deep, and these guys are amazing. They dug deep. They found something and just said ‘we’re going to refuse to give into this.’”
If there was fatigue in the second half of a tight championship game, the players didn’t feel it.
“Nobody was fatigued because adrenaline just kept you up, and not wanting to let your teammates down,” Jordan Goodwin said. He finished the title game with 16 points and 14 rebounds.
Hasahn French admitted that he felt a little fatigued, but he saw the finish line so close that it didn’t matter.
“I had to suck it up,” he said. “It’s the championship.”
The story of a team overcoming adversity and gutting out a championship is nothing new, but the inspirational narrative doesn’t happen at all without some equally important, if not less sexy, tactical adjustments.
Ford has had his struggles as a coach, most notably at Oklahoma State where he was fired in 2016 after a 12-20 season. But he’s been around, and he went into Brooklyn with a plan to get the most out of the seven guys who would see the floor.
Saint Louis is — and this may be putting it nicely — a bad offensive team. The Billikens ranked 327th in the country in three-point percentage, 352nd in free throw percentage, and 205th in offensive efficiency, according to KenPom.
They win games on defense, and so it may have seemed odd for Ford to start changing things up on that end right as the postseason began. He resorted to leaning on a 1-3-1 zone could not only throw opponents off, but give players a chance to steal a quick breather.
“If we’re going to win four games, we had to figure out five to six minutes in the game where we could conserve a little bit of energy, and then try to keep teams off-balance a little bit.”
The plan worked to perfection against Davidson. The Wildcats took 30 threes in the game, but made just seven of them.
That scheme was far less successful early on against St. Bonaventure as the Bonnies built a double-digit lead in the first half. So Ford switched to a man-to-man, risking his players’ endurance because he just didn’t have a better option. And while the Bonnies led by nine at the half, Ford decided to stick with it, with one minor adjustment. In the second half, when Saint Louis started denying Bonnies star Courtney Stockard the middle of the floor, forcing him to the sideline, their offense seemed thrown off. St. Bonaventure started taking worse shots, later in the shot clock. It gave Saint Louis confidence, fed that adrenaline, and forced St. Bonaventure to work even harder.
So when the under-eight media timeout hit, one team was rested, and it was the group of seven guys who were playing their fourth game in four days.
“These guys,” Ford said, “they have a competitive nature about them that’s fun to watch and fun to coach.”
Next up, it’s Virginia Tech on Friday. Saint Louis is a trendy upset pick, and with nearly a week to get ready, it makes sense. The preseason A-10 favorites seem to have put it together.