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The Other Top 25 preseason rankings: No. 2 Saint Louis Billikens

Billikens have the potential to reach national prominence in 2020-21

NCAA Basketball: Dayton at Saint Louis Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

2019-20 record: 23-8 (12-6 A-10)

Key Returners: Jordan Goodwin (G, Sr.), Javonte Perkins (G, Sr.), Hassan French (F, Sr.), Gibson Jimmerson (G, So.)

Key Newcomers: Marten Linssen (F, Jr.), Andre Lorentsson (F, Fr.), Phillip Russell (G, Fr.), Markhi Strickland (G/F, Fr.).

Key Loss: Tay Weaver

Run it back, run it back, run it back.

The Billikens return virtually their whole squad from a 23-win team a year ago. That includes their top eight scorers to go with talented graduate transfer Martin Linssen from UNC Wilmington.

Saint Louis seemed to have finally found its groove when the season was cut short before the NCAA Tournament. The Billikens won six out of their last seven conference games and gave Dayton their toughest A-10 match-ups, losing 78-76 (OT) and 71-65.

With Obi Toppin now in the NBA, the Billikens are now the favorites in a deep A-10 conference. The Billikens’ core group is looking to return to the NCAA Tournament for the second time in three years.

They have a good shot at that with tons of experience back on the roster, headlined by Jordan Goodwin, Javonte Perkins, and Hassan French. The Billikens won’t do anything new — they are going to play their physical brand of basketball. It’s going to be slow, they’re going to crash the boards, and they are going to make you work for every bucket. The main question is if they can improve their shooting, especially from the free throw line, where they shot a dreadful 57.1% as a team.

3 things to watch for:

Dominating the boards

Despite below-average height and length, the Billikens were one of the best rebounding teams in the country last season, ranking 22nd in offensive rebounding percentage and 56th in defensive rebounding percentage. A lot of this was thanks to the tenacity of Goodwin and French. Despite being just 6’3, Goodwin was one of the best rebounders in the country, at 10.3 rebounds per game.

Goodwin’s ability to dominate the boards sets the tone for the rest of the team. French was one of the best offensive rebounders in the country and provided easy buckets on put-back opportunities. The addition of the 6-8 grad transfer Linssen should also bolster the Billikens’ strength on the glass.

Javonte Perkins’ increased role?

Perkins was the main scorer and spark plug off the bench, averaging 15.0 points per game. The junior college transfer’s minutes increased gradually last year en route to being named the A-10 sixth man of the year. With a whole year of experience, Perkins can find a way to elevate his game further,

Goodwin gets all the accolades, but it has become obvious that Perkins is the Billikens’ most efficient and effective scorer. During A-10 play, Perkins shot 49.1% from the field, 41% from three, and 77.9% from the free-throw line. Perkins should be the center focus of the offensive, getting him open on ball screens and letting him work in isolation. Giving him a bigger role should make the Saint Louis offense more efficient. There were too many stretches last season where the offense was dead and needed to rely on offensive put-backs. With Perkins on the floor more often, he should be able to ignite offensive stretches and give the Billikens more consistency on that side of the ball.

Freebies aren’t so free

Saint Louis was one of the worst free throw shooting teams in America last year, and a fair share of that fell on French.

French took 155 freebies and made only 32% of them. He has not shot above 40% in any of his three previous years. “Hack a French,” should be used early and often with that kind of mark. Star guard Jordan Goodwin is better, but still not good. While Goodwin he is one of the best rebounding guards in the league, he is also one of the worst free throw shooters, cashing in on just 53.2% of his free throw attempts last year.

With those two accounting for over 50% of the team’s free throw attempts, they have to be better. Saint Louis cannot take the next step without improvements there.

X-Factor

Saint Louis needs to have better shooting outside of Perkins. We mentioned Goodwin is a pesky, athletic guard, but his jumper needs work.

Whether it’s shooting from three or the free-throw line, Goodwin has to get better. Simply, 26.3% from three is not going to cut it. If Goodwin can at least be a threat from deep and command respect of defenses on the perimeter — and can improve to be a near-average free throw shooter — Saint Louis becomes a second weekend contender. But we have to see it to believe it.