Not even the mascot expected SLU to be this good.
Shhh! Don't tell anyone. We don't want to jinx it but the SLU Billikens are just a few wins away from an NCAA tournament berth.
You may not have noticed since the Bills' games are rarely televised locally (and even when they are, they sometimes aren't
) but Rick Majerus
and Co. have won six games in a row and are in fourth place in the Atlantic-10, a conference that could conceivably send five teams dancing.
How does that happen when every single one of SLU's players is an underclassman?
Here's five reasons:
- Great defense. It's a trademark of Majerus' best teams. The Billikens opponents are shooting 38 percent from the field and a paltry 25 percent from beyond the arc. They also average six steals and five blocks per game. Stats like that win close games, especially in a mid-major conference where many teams rely on the three. And unlike a jump shot, team defense travels well: SLU has four conference wins on the road, including big victories of Rhode Island and UMass last night.
- Kwamain Mitchell. The sophomore point guard is having a phenomenal season as the Bills' floor general. Even as a freshman he showed the work ethic and desire to learn Majerus' system and it has paid off in spades so far in 2010. He's averaging 15.8 points and 3 assists per game and, more importantly, just two turnovers per game. He's dynamic, exciting to watch and he's led the charge on several of the Bills' second-half comebacks. Should be a favorite for A-10 player of the year his junior and senior seasons.
- Willie Reed. The big man from Kansas City has only improved in his sophomore season, both defensively and in terms of his touch on offense. It's a testament to Majerus' ability to coach post players that Reed as matured so quickly as a player. He still has to add bulk to his frame before he becomes a dominant force but his 11 points per game and 50 blocks on the season have been indispensable. Credit Big Rick's vision for recruiting a great 1-2 punch in Reed and Mitchell.
- Cody Ellis. Though he's only played in twelve games (and started just nine of those) because of eligibility issues, he has been a difference-maker. The Australian is not the next Andrew Bogut (another Majerus recruit) but more of a European-style face-the-basket and shoot-threes type of big man. He's listed at 240-lbs, though, and combined with a maturing Brian Conklin, he has provided the muscle necessary to compete with the front lines of Richmond, Temple and Xavier and overwhelm the weaker conference foes.
- Majerus' Coaching. Say what you will about Majerus' off-the-court jawing about everything from his radio show to his firmly held belief that SLU should be in the Missouri Valley but the man knows basketball. His will power is as responsible for SLU victories as his grind-it-out and play defense Big Ten style of ball. Very few coaches can compete in a conference like the A-10 with a team as young as his. And if he keeps winning, he can continue to say pretty much whatever he wants and not face the wrath of his boss Lawrence Biondi.
It should be noted that despite their recent surge the Billikens were absent from ESPN's latest Bracketology
tournament projection (Joe Lunardi, however did project five teams from the A-10 but SLU wasn't even among the last eight out) and rank just 96 in Ken Pomeroy's RPI rankings
That doesn't bode well for the Bills but a strong showing in the A-10 tournament virtually guarantees a spot in the Big Dance. Unless they win the thing, though, don't expect them to be placed anywhere near the St. Louis region.