For the fourth time this decade, the Saint Louis Billikens are going dancing. Overall, it’ll be the tenth time we’ve seen Saint Louis in the Big Dance.
The Billikens likely weren’t going to get an at-large bid to the tourney this season, so, as a No. 6 seed, they rolled through the Atlantic-10 tournament and beat St. Bonaventure by two points to steal the conference’s automatic bid.
In Saint Louis’ last trip to the tournament, in 2014, they beat N.C. State in the first round before falling to Louisville in the second round. That was when Jim Crews was the head coach, but now Travis Ford is in charge, leading the Billikens for his third season.
While Saint Louis has had success in the past decade, it hasn’t appeared in a Sweet 16 since 1957. Can the Billikens beat Virginia Tech, and then either Mississippi State or Liberty? Maybe.
Let’s get to know the Billikens.
Where is Saint Louis?
Who is their coach?
That would be Travis Ford. The 49-year-old native of Madisonville, Kentucky is taking the Billikens to the tournament for the first time in his three years at the helm.
Ford began his college playing days at Missouri, but then transferred to Kentucky where he set records for most assists in one game, most three-pointers made in a season and consecutive free throws made. In 1993, he helped Kentucky — then coached by part-man, part-vampire Rick Pitino — reach the Final Four.
In 1997, Ford became the head coach at NAIA Campbellsville. In 2000, he was hired to lead Eastern Kentucky and took them to the NCAA tournament in 2005. He then left for UMass, where he made the NIT in two out of three seasons before he was hired at Oklahoma State in 2008. In eight season leading the Cowboys, Ford’s teams made five NCAA tournaments and one NIT. He was fired after a 12-20 season in 2016.
I don’t really watch the A-10. Is there a player from Saint Louis that I should know?
Javon Bess is the leading scorer for Saint Louis. He averages 15.3 points and 6.7 rebounds per-game while shooting 33.2 percent from behind the arc. He’s a 6-foot-6 senior who transferred in from Michigan State. As a sophomore, he appeared in 32 games and started in 13 for the Spartans. Bess scored 11 points in the A-10 title game.
The Billikens built much of their roster with transfers. DJ Foreman played at Rutgers, Dion Wiley started at Maryland, Tremain Isabell Jr. began at Drexel, and Joshua Hightower and Jack Raboin came from junior colleges.
Hasahn French, the Billikens’ leading rebounder, came to them straight out of high school. The 6-foot-7 sophomore averages 9.3 points and 8.4 boards per-game.
What did Saint Louis do in non-conference play?
The Billikens went 12-4, losing to Florida State, Houston, Southern Illinois and Pitt. They also beat NCAA Tournament teams Seton Hall and NC Central.
Okay. What in God’s name is a Billiken?
Here’s an actual thing written on the university’s website: The Billiken is a mythical good-luck figure who represents “things as they ought to be.”
And: No one is sure exactly when the Billiken first became linked to SLU.
Also: The uniting of SLU and the Billiken seems to have happened sometime between 1910 and 1911 at the height of Billikenmania. Each story of the Billiken connection with Saint Louis University stems from SLU law student and football coach John Bender and his remarkable likeness to the image of the Billiken. One story reports that a St. Louis sports writer decided that Bender resembled the Billiken. Later, a cartoonist drew a caricature of the coach in the form of a Billiken and posted it in the window of a drugstore. The football team soon became known as “Bender’s Billikens.”
In short, I don’t really know what a Billiken is. And neither do the folks at Saint Louis. And that’s fine, I suppose.
What does Saint Louis do well?
Saint Louis crashes the offensive glass. They are third in the country and the best of teams in the NCAA tournament field when it comes to grabbing offensive boards, gobbling up 480 of their misses. In total rebounds, Saint Louis is fifth in the country.
Per KenPom, Saint Louis is 44th in defensive efficiency.
What do they not do well?
The Billikens are the third-worst three-point shooting team in the NCAA Tournament field, knocking down just 30.8 percent of their shots from behind the arc. Only VCU and Duke are worse from that distance.
Saint Louis is also not good at making free throws. That is an understatement. They are atrocious at making free throws. They are the second worst team in the country from the charity stripe, making 59.8 percent of their shots from there. Only Manhattan (58.4 percent) is worse.
For true shooting percentage, the Billikens have a mark of 49.4 percent, which is the 16th worst in the country and the overall worst in the NCAA Tournament field.
Can Saint Louis win?
Based on the last section I just wrote, an upset of Virginia Tech seems unlikely.
More required reading
The Roanoke Times | Saint Louis and Virginia Tech headed for a rematch
Mid-Major Madness | Saint Louis had simply been through too much to miss the NCAA Tournament
St. Louis Post Dispatch | A happy ending to a long, often painful, SLU season