Wise Billikens built for tournament success

Photo by Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports
Photo by Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports

By Paul Gotham and Ryan Lazo

BROOKLYN, NY – For little more than three minutes of game time Sunday afternoon the floor at the Barclays Center appeared as if on an incline.  VCU’s men’s basketball team wrestled momentum from their counterparts, the St. Louis Billikens, and the Rams were running downhill.

Treveon Graham took a Dareus Theus lead pass late in the shot clock and drilled a three-pointer. At the other end of the floor, VCU’s defensive pressure caused a turnover. Rob Bradenburg stepped into a passing lane for a steal and went the length of the floor for an and-one layup.

A 13-point lead reduced to seven in 24 seconds.

SLU’s Cody Ellis stemmed the tide momentarily hitting one of two free throws, but the Rams pressed on.

Briante Weber drove the lane. The defense shifted, and the 6-2 guard shoveled a pass to Reddic for a dunk.  Reddic stole the ensuing inbound and fed Melvin Johnson for a 15-foot jumper.

St. Louis called timeout.

VCU tightened the vise.

Another possession and another SLU turnover. This time Reddic converted one of two free throws.  Reddic capped the run when he intercepted another pass and unleashed a thunderous dunk triggering bedlam from the black and yellow contingent.

VCU’s famed Havoc defense looked ready to pounce and the chant rained down from the VCU faithful: “You don’t want to go to war with the RAAAAAAAAAMMMMMS…”

A thirteen point deficit was reduced to one.

Then, just as the clamor peaked, it crashed to the floor.

Jordair Jett found Cody Ellis open for three. One trip later, Ellis used an up-fake and one dribble before knocking down a pull-up jumper. Kwamain Mitchell pushed the margin to six with a trey over the outstretched hands of the 6-9 Reddic as the shot clock expired.

VCU tried to regroup but Ellis hit another trifecta. This time on an inside-out pass from Dwayne Evans.

Despite Ellis missing his first five shots on the afternoon, Evans, who accounted for 49 points in SLU’s previous two games, didn’t hesitate to kick the ball to his teammate. He also didn’t hesitate getting down the floor choosing to leave the lane as Ellis released his shot.

“I know Cody had missed a couple, but when we need them he can make the shots,” Evans said with a smile.  “I just had a feeling it was going; I don’t think I turned around.”

Jett, Mitchell and Rob Loe sealed the victory combining on five-of-eight free throws as St. Louis defeated VCU, 62-56 claiming the 2013 Atlantic 10 men’s basketball championship.

The Billikens improved to 21-0 on the season when holding opponents under 60.

Sunday’s win capped a three-day run where the Billikens showed, if nothing else, a keen ability to adapt. Friday, the Bills took away the inside presence of  a physical Charlotte team in a 72-55 victory. Saturday, SLU limited the outside scoring of Rotnei Clarke and defeated Butler, 67-56. The win was the third this year over a Butler squad which made consecutive trips to the NCAA’s Final Four in 2010 and ’11.

“I’ve said all year to the people that have listened, and some that don’t, how good they are.  They are a legitimate contender for the whole thing,” Stevens said after Saturday’s game.  “I believe that wholeheartedly.  They’ve got eight guys that are all strong, big, physical, tough, smart, skilled basketball players, and you don’t need anything else if you’re all together, and they’ve got it all.”

Sunday, SLU endured VCU, also a 2010 Final Four participant, and their relentless defensive pressure.

“It’s hard to play back‑to‑back games, and the A‑10 has so many different systems of play,” explained St. Louis interim head coach Jim Crews.  “It’s kind of a really unique league from that standpoint…You’re certainly almost starting from scratch each game it seems like.”

While the Billikens might have to approach individual games starting from scratch, it is something Crews has avoided over the course of this season. After joining the SLU staff prior to the start of the 2011-12 season, Crews was promoted to interim head coach last August when the late Rick Majerus left the program for the health issues which eventually claimed his life.

Crews has described his role with the Billikens as that of being hired to paint one house. Free from having to concern himself  with the running of the entire company, Crews has turned to his players who learned the game from Majerus.

“We’re not a big stat team,” Crews explained.  “These guys got tremendous wisdom, and that doesn’t show up in stats in terms of how many things that you do.”

That wisdom shows up in plays like Evans leading Ellis with a relocation pass from the post, or the 6-6 forward choosing to take just two shots in the first half of a game after leading his team in scoring the previous two days.

“I just have so much trust in my teammates,” Evans added. “I know they’re going to be there for me and I know I’m going to be there for them.”

SLU’s game is simple yet complex at the same time. They make the easy pass like the possession where the ball quickly swung from one side of the floor to the other moving from Ellis to Jett to Mike McCall, Jr. on to Loe for a three-point attempt. When the shot rimmed out, Evans was there for an offensive rebound.

Yet there is the subtle dribble-drive set where the Bills wait to get all defenders with at least one foot in the paint before looking for an open-three-point attempt.

“They’ve taught me things and brought light to this or that,” Crews explained. “When they take ownership like that, you know you’ve got a chance to be a pretty good team.  I’ve had teams like that before, and when they start interjecting, and they have ‑‑ hey, that is better than what we said; that is a better idea how to play this or how to play that.  And that’s pretty neat.”

The same goes for the defensive end of the floor where the Bills play half-court man-to-man and hold opposing offenses to a league-leading 61 points per game.  At first glance, SLU plays textbook help side defense with clearly defined rotations and slides. It’s not flashy.

Then there is the subtle running of shooters off spots. As Crews explains it, his team recognizes the different sweet spots shooters have on the floor. Defenders will work to make three-point threat take his shot from further away, or to make a post player catch the ball further from the paint.

At the same time, the Billikens will use the occasional double team. Instead of employing an all-out press on possession after possession, the Bills will look to catch a ballhandler off guard. The trap is organized with the three off-the-ball defenders rotating to take away passing lanes.

“A lot of times I’ll say, “What do you guys want to run?  How do you want to play that?”  Crews added. “They’re not shy about it.  They do have wisdom, and they feel comfortable with one way or another, and they understand situations.
It’s a real luxury.  It’s a fun thing from my standpoint.”

SLU has won 15 of its last 16. The potential of six more wins lie ahead. Some have suggested that a title run would serve as fitting tribute to the late Majerus.

“I don’t know to tell you the truth, because Rick’s footprints, fingerprints, his lessons are embedded into those guys, his wisdom is embedded into those guys, which is pretty cool, and that’s been a fun thing for me,” Crews reflected.  “It would be great to say, hey, this is for Rick.  But you know what, what if they lose.  I just don’t buy into that.  Rick’s life and his friendship and his coaching and the relationships that he had and the people that he touched is a lot bigger than winning a game or winning a championship or having a good year.”

Maybe Crews is the wisest of all associated with SLU. It is he who has been able to identify that gift in others. House painter or CEO, Crews might have future in those endeavors. Not that he’ll need them. Coaching basketball seems to fit well. It’s just a matter of that “interim” tag.

No. 4 seed St. Louis (27-6/13-3) will play no. 13 seed New Mexico St. (24-10/14-4 WAC) in the second round of the Midwest Region. Tip off is scheduled for 2:10 p.m. at the HP Pavilion in San Jose, California.

 

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