Photo via Saint Louis Athletics
Mid-major teams in college basketball, easily (and sometimes overnight, for that matter), become the darlings of the entire country. Going up against bluebloods with “lesser” or “smaller” talent, and still succeeding despite it, definitely attracts the college basketball casuals and die-hards to the team, whether they are fans of them or not.
The Atlantic 10, through its regular seasons and tournament runs of season’s past, has definitely produced its steady crop of sweethearts. Just this year, they have already produced a surprise, as the Richmond Spiders took down the big-dog Kentucky Wildcats on Nov. 29 at Rupp Arena.
Sure, Richmond has been a force and will be one moving forward. The Spiders are predicted to be one of the top teams in the Atlantic 10, so the projections say.
A conference rival, however, has quietly made a case good enough to give the Spiders a run for their money. Maybe so much, in fact, that the Spiders’ web of automatic Atlantic 10 dominance should be put on hold.
Saint Louis Billikens, I am looking at you.
The Billikens, in previous seasons, might not have shocked many. A solid rebounding team with decent defensive capabilities on its worst day could give any team a fit for a half or so, but the scoring from Saint Louis generally fell short. If the defense faltered and the rebounding was not there, an average offense, by all stretches of the mean, could not compete against the teams with bigger guns and flashier firepower. Take last season, for instance. Although Saint Louis finished with a solid 23-8 record, hopes for March Madness mayhem from the Billikens came into question because of their mediocre offense, which averaged 71.7 points per game (tied for 153rd out of 353 Division I teams). The rebounding was excellent (the Billikens averaged 39.7 rebounds per game, which was tied for 21st in the entire nation) and the point totals were better than previous years, but still not there.
Slowly, but surely, Saint Louis head coach Travis Ford has transformed a once pragmatic offense into an offense reminiscent to Big 12 scoring juggernauts. The former head coach for the Oklahoma State Cowboys, in his fifth year with Saint Louis, has started to bring plentiful benefits on the offensive side of the basket.
Entering Dec. 10 action, Saint Louis has averaged 92.3 points per game, which ranks 13th among all Division I teams. While the rebounding has taken a step back (the Billikens’ 35.8 rebounds per game is tied for 188th in all of Division I), this is to be expected. If you are finding the net more and more like the Billikens have, then generally, the glass is not as slammed as often as it would otherwise.
While Ford has brought pedigree, the players of the team have brought experience. All four players who averaged 10 or more points last season (Jordan Goodwin with 15.5, Javonte Perkins with 15.0, Hasahn French with 12.4 and Gibson Jimerson with 10.8) have returned to the team this season. Perkins and Jimerson have led the scoring barrage, as they have improved their points per game totals to 19.8 and 15.0, respectively. Goodwin, meanwhile, has kept up his double-double prowess he maintained a season ago, as the senior is averaging 13.3 points and 10.0 rebounds per game. The biggest shock, however, might come from French, who is only averaging 22.5 minutes per game after averaging 31.9 minutes per game one season ago. This, however, is more of a testament to the team around him picking up the slack and showing all of college basketball that, once French gets a consistent (and healthy) stretch going, the Billikens will be even more formidable from top to bottom.
The experience is there. Perkins, French, and Goodwin (as mentioned) are all seniors. Their Basketball Power Index (a measure which helps project how the team will perform moving forward) of 62 is an improvement over their 90th ranking during the 2019-20 season and brings home the notion that this new-look and high-scoring Billikens’ team is here to stay.
Sure, Richmond might have beaten Kentucky, but once conference play gets rolling, it will not get any easier.
Saint Louis is looking at you.