There is nothing quite like team achievement. As Billiken fans we had the opportunity to watch a program grow and achieve from the ground up. Last season’s Billiken squad was put together piece by piece. It overcame much adversity and made some noise in the NCAA tournament, which was the perfect finish to a career for seniors Brian Conklin and Kyle Cassity.
They were the first recruits with whom Head Coach Rick Majerus used as his foundation, his building blocks to success. Kwamain Mitchell, despite losing a season, also came back to provide the team with more talent to get into the tournament.
It’s been a fun ride, and luckily there isn’t an end in sight. Despite more issues for the program, the Billikens are back and ready to play all the way through the madness that March brings.
Losing a leader like Conklin is one thing, but then to lose the head coach is quite another. Majerus is one of, if not the, greatest minds in college basketball. There is no question that the squad has an edge on the sideline every game. But now Majerus is battling illness, and he’ll be missed. However, either by design or simply good fortune that Jim Crews is ready at the helm to steady the ship. Last year, Majerus brought in Crews as his right hand man and confidant. He is the man to step into Majerus’ shoes and lead a team that is ready.
Crews has a front line that is experienced and deep. The team will present many matchup problems for the competition. Cody Ellis and Rob Loe are nightmares for the opposition because they are big men who go to the perimeter to score. This team plays inside out with the “bigs” playing atypical roles, which drives other coaches crazy. Dwayne Evans has become a dominant “3-man” who is a double-double machine and Cory Remekun, John Manning and Grandy Glaze give the team all the inside muscle that it needs on a given night.
The second issue for Crews is the loss of Mitchell. The senior leader and member of the Atlantic 10 First Team broke his foot and had surgery. Mitchell will probably be gone until Christmas, at least in my prognosis, but all is not lost.
Could the Bills lose a game or two that they might not have with Mitchell? The answer is yes. However, the backcourt is deep, and now it’s apparent why Majerus kept bringing in guards. Mike McCall Jr. is ready to step in just as he did when Mitchell missed the 2010-2011 season. As a then-freshman, McCall lead the team in scoring. His backcourt mate is Jordair “I-make-defense-my-business” Jett. Behind Jett is the much heralded Chicago recruit, Keith Carter, who gets better every day.
The team also has deep talent with guards and wings like Jared Drew and Jake Barnett. SLU is a first or second pick in almost every publication, website and poll.
The schedule is tough, but it is the perfect preparation for March. The home opener is Friday, Nov. 9 against USC Upstate. Next on the schedule is Santa Clara. After a huge national tournament in Kansas City against Texas A&M, Kansas and Washington State, the Bills renew their rivalry with Barry Hinson but this time he’s at Southern Illinois.
Next, the boys head to Seattle to visit Lorenzo Romar and his Washington Huskies. Then it’s home for the holidays for an eight-game streak of non-conference games. It will be a great run of teams, with Valparaiso, North Texas and UT-Martin for the warm up. But then Jay Spoonhour brings in his Eastern Illinois Panthers, followed by a “get ‘em back” game against Loyola Marymount, a new rival in SIUE and another payback contest with New Mexico on New Year’s Eve. The final tuneup for A-10 play is against Savannah State.
The league slate is imposing and exciting with Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Butler, Dayton, Charlotte, VCU, St. Joe’s and LaSalle all paying visit to Chaifetz Arena.
As the fans and in particular the student section rev it up, Chaifetz has become one of the toughest venues for opponents in the loop.
Assuming reasonable health, look for the Bills to do some big-time damage this year, and get ready for another mad, mad March.