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Fun times ahead for Billikens

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On March 18, after postponing my five-hour trip back to school from Chicago for pressing issues related to college basketball, I sat in my living room and watched my postseason dreams for the Billikens fade. Tick by tick of the clock, free throw by free throw, the hopes of a deep tournament run slipped away. I’ll be the first to admit that the quality of my day (and sometimes week) has far too much to do with the outcome of a sporting event. After seeing a team I love fall, my outlook becomes gloomy:  Taco from ‘The League’ can’t make me laugh, freeze-pops don’t taste so good anymore, and Nickelback makes my ears bleed. Actually, that last one happens regardless of the final score.

After the buzzer sounded, I waited for the dreadful March malaise to settle in. I took a deep breath, braced for it, but it never came.

Instead, what I felt was a deep sense of pride in the SLU basketball team, our University, and most importantly, optimism for the 2012-13 season. Something tells me that watching Billiken basketball in March will become the norm instead of an anomaly.

It’d be foolish to ignore the departure of our two seniors before drinking the entire pitcher of Billiken Blue Kool-Aid. Brian Conklin was a critical factor for this season’s successes, and his impact went far beyond the box score. Kyle Cassity offered a spark off the bench as a deep threat and his basketball IQ will be missed.

Conklin’s absence poses the biggest question mark for SLU heading into next season. He led the team in scoring with 13.9 points per game en route to an All Atlantic-10 first team selection and provided a presence in the low post. What SLU will miss most is his intangibles. Conklin played with intensity every time he hit the hardwood, setting the tone for SLU’s hard-nosed play and providing senior leadership.

Where will the points in the paint come from? Cory Remekun, who will be a senior, plays solid defense but has yet to establish himself as a reliable scoring threat in the low-post. While his offensive production slipped proportionally with his diminished court time, the statistics don’t tell the entire story. Remekun made the most of his limited touches, shooting 54 percent from the field. His performance against Michigan State gives another reason for encouragement. Against MSU’s tough frontcourt, he gave 16 good minutes and chipped in four points. If his game continues to develop around the basket, he’ll become a force for the Billikens.

Cody Ellis, known primarily for his 3-point shooting, has the size to score effectively from the post. This past season, 181 of his 262 field goal attempts came from outside the arc. If he can develop a consistent inside game and continue to add mass to his 6 foot 8, 235 pound frame, he’ll be a nightmare for opposing defenses.

Rob Loe can follow a similar path to fill the offensive void in the paint. A solid shooter from distance, he has the height to get easy baskets around the rim. Loe’s ability to stretch defenses creates not only good shots for himself, but his teammates.

A player to keep an eye on is freshman John Manning. He only saw 47 minutes on the court last year, but has the potential to emerge as a front court contributor. Manning’s development will go a long way for SLU.

The Billiken backcourt and small forward position will return next season with a glut of talented, battle-tested players.

Kwamain Mitchell will be the centerpiece at point guard. Last year, Mitchell averaged 12.4 points per game, a drop-off from his 15.9 average in 2009-10. An important statistic to note is that those points came on only 10 shots per game. Mitchell’s offensive game became more polished as the year went on through effective shot selection. He hit a decent 36.5 percent from three-point land during the season and can get to the basket at will. Mitchell’s a good passer and an even better floor leader as evidenced by his ability to facilitate the offense. Oh, and one more thing: The guy has ice-water in his veins. Mitchell is fearless and loves to take (and hit) the big shots.

Sophomores Mike McCall Jr. and Jordair Jett both played well on offense and defense and showed flashes of greatness throughout the year. Both, like Mitchell, are lockdown defenders capable of putting the pressure on opposing guards. Jett has the quickness and strength to get into the lane and draw contact, and has shown increased touch on his jump shot. McCall has the potential to be a good shooter, and has unparalleled quickness. He’s another Billiken who plays smart basketball and leaves it all on the court.

At the three spot, Dwayne Evans has been a beast ever since he’s put on the SLU jersey. His athleticism and strength are top-notch, and he can finish around the basket. Evans is an outstanding rebounder, consistently snatching boards from taller players. If he can get more touches, he has the capacity to be a dominant player on both ends.

Three Billikens have the ability to step in and make an impact at the forward position: Sophomore transfer Jake Barnett, freshman Grandy Glaze and incoming freshman Jared Drew. Barnett put up 13 points per game his freshman year at Toledo and has the ability to score from anywhere on the floor. Glaze and Drew are both two talented young guys who can carve out a role in the rotation as time progresses.

Head coach Rick Majerus is often referred to as a master strategist, and if his career win-loss record doesn’t tell you why, this season did. Majerus has his team ready to play every night. Whether it’s a Division III exhibition game or a third round game in the NCAA tournament, Majerus’s teams will have a strategy in place to dictate the tempo of the game. His defensive prowess as a coach is one of the best in the country. On offense, his teams are efficient and minimize mistakes. No matter the opponent, Majerus puts the Billikens in a position to compete in every game.

With the Billikens returning four seasoned starters and a deep bench, the 2012-13 team can count itself among the A-10 elite and position themselves for postseason success.

I’m not going to pretend that I can tell you where this program will stand one year from now, because literally ANYTHING can happen in college basketball. If you need proof, take a trip over to Columbia and ask Mizzou fans how their brackets are looking.

What I can tell you is that SLU returns young talent, a strong veteran core and one of the best basketball minds in the game today. Get out of bed, resume normal hygiene practices and put down the Tom Izzo voodoo doll. Next March has the chance to be something special. It’s good to be a Billiken.

 

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