Top 25 Countdown: No. 22 St. Louis Billikens

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Throughout the month of October, CollegeBasketballTalk will be rolling out our previews for the 2012-2013 season. Check back at 9 a.m. and just after lunch every day, Monday-Friday, for a new preview item.

To browse through the preview posts we’ve already published, click here. To look at the rest of the Top 25, click here. For a schedule of our previews for the month, click here.

Last Season: 26-8, 12-4 Atlantic 10 (2nd); Lost to Michigan State in the Round of 32 in the NCAA tournament

Head Coach: Jim Crews (interim)

Key Losses: Brian Conklin, Rick Majerus (coach), Kyle Cassity

Newcomers: Jared Drew, Keith Carter

Projected Lineup:

G: Kwamain Mitchell, Sr.
G: Mike McCall, Jr.
F: Cody Ellis, Sr.
F: Dwayne Evans, Jr.
F: Rob Loe, Jr.
Bench: Jordair Jett, Jr.; Cory Remekun, Sr.; Jake Barnett, Jr.; Keith Carter, Fr.

Outlook: I don’t think that it’s crazy to say that St. Louis had their best season in the history of their program in 2011-2012. They finished the year with 26 wins, one off of a school-record. That team that won 27 games didn’t make the NCAA tournament, however; they racked up the record with a run to the NIT finals. These Billikens did make the dance and, for just the fourth time in school history, they won a game while there, beating a hot Memphis team in the opening round before losing to Michigan State by four. That matched the furthest the program has ever advanced in the tournament; St. Louis has never made it to the Sweet 16.

So when you consider the fact that the Billikens return seven of the eight players that saw more than one minute of action in that loss to the Spartans, there should be a great deal of optimism surrounding the program, right?

Well, not exactly. You see, it’s difficult to know how much of the St. Louis success from a year ago was the result of the raw amount of talent in the program and how much of it can be credited to the coaching ability of Rick Majerus. There aren’t many who can stack up with Majerus from an x’s-and-o’s standpoint. The man has won 517 career games without so much as coaching as a power conference program.* He’s as good as anyone at identifying under-the-radar talent and figuring out a way to get the most out of his roster.

*(He was at Marquette before they were in the Big East and Utah before they were in the Pac-12.)

And he won’t be coaching this season. Majerus had to step aside due to health concerns back in August, and it’s unclear if he will ever coach again.

In his stead is Jim Crews, who has head coaching experience. And he also has a roster that is good enough to win a very strong Atlantic 10. The leader of this year’s team will likely be Kwamain Mitchell, who returned from a season-long suspension to average 12.4 points and 3.7 assists a season ago. Mitchell, who stands about 5-foot-10 in sneakers on his tip-toes, was one of the best players in the conference before his suspension. With leading scorer — and team leader — Brian Conklin graduating, it will be interesting to see the role that Mitchell takes over this year. The good news for St. Louis, given the coaching situation, is that this is a veteran group, but that doesn’t change the fact that someone will need to step up and embrace a leadership role.

He’ll likely be joined in the back court by Mike McCall Jr., who took over the starting role form Kyle Cassity by the end of the year. McCall was second on the team in assists last year and is also a guy that can spread the floor with his ability to shoot, but he may be relegated to bench duty this season by Jordair Jett. Jett, who came off the bench last season, is the best perimeter defender on the roster, being named to the Atlantic 10 all-defensive team despite being a reserve. He’s always been a bit of an after-thought offensively, although he’s averaged about seven points in his first two seasons and scored 40 points in the Billiken’s four A-10 and NCAA tournament games.

Also keep an eye on Keith Carter in the back court. Carter is a freshman out of Chicago’s Proviso East High School, and Majerus had been raving about him.

The St. Louis front court has a bit of an odd make-up. 6-foot-5 Dwayne Evans is the bruiser and team’s leading rebounder, while 6-foot-8 Cody Ellis — who shot 38.1% from three while leading the team in attempts coming off the bench — and 6-foot-11 Rob Loe tend to float around the perimeter. Cory Remekun is the guy likely to see a bump in his minutes this season with Conklin gone, as he’s more physical in the paint.

Predictions?: Overcoming the loss of Majerus is going to be tough for this group, but at the end of the day, their strength is on the defensive end of the floor. The willingness to give effort and a desire to get stops on that end of the floor isn’t necessarily going to change with a change in who is calling the plays from the sideline. Losing Conklin’s front court presence will hurt as much as losing his leadership did, and I can foresee the Billikens having far more offensive possessions turning into the Kwamain Mitchell show. Like the rest of the A-10, St. Louis is a tough team to peg because of some of their off-season changes and the strength of the conference. On paper, they are probably one of the league’s top two teams, but that doesn’t mean much. Anything less than a top four finish in the conference and a win in the NCAA tournament should be considered a disappointment.

Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @robdauster.

The end was disappointing, but Kentucky’s season outpaced all expectation

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In yet another example of what makes March Madness the greatest and most unpredictable sporting spectacle on the planet, Kentucky’s run to the Sweet 16 this season is going to be looked at as a disappointment.

Who saw that coming back in January?

Who thought that this team had second weekend potential when they were in the midst of the first four-game losing streak of John Calipari’s tenure in Lexington?

And please, show me who, at that point in time, predicted that Kentucky media would be calling a loss in the Sweet 16 “the worst loss” in the Calipari era back when there were actual discussions being had over whether or not the Wildcats were going to get into the NCAA tournament?

It’s amazing how quickly the tide turns in college basketball

Kentucky lost on Thursday night. The fifth-seeded Wildcats fell to the ninth-seeded Wildcats of Kansas State in a game that turned into drama-filled slugfest down the stretch. The final score was 61-58. Kentucky had two shots at the end of regulation to force a tie or take the lead. They also gave up an offensive rebound to a 6-foot-3 no-name with 40 seconds left that led to the game-winning bucket.

The narrative is going to be that Kentucky choked this game away, that their inability to run offense — and P.J. Washington’s free throw yips — cost them the Final Four that seemed a given Thursday morning and a pipe dream on Selection Sunday.

The truth is that Kentucky was a flawed basketball team that got hot at the right time before running into a team that executed a game-plan to perfection while getting the benefit of a couple of bounces and whistles going their way.

And let me be perfectly clear: In no way, shape or form am I saying that Kentucky or Big Blue Nation should be happy with this loss. It should be disappointing. It should hurt — more so for the players than the fans, but whatever. The bracket broke perfectly for them. Everyone in their region was a cinderella. We weren’t wrong in thinking that Coach Cal’s kids were the heavy favorites to get to San Antonio out of Catlanta.

But we need to say that while also acknowledging this: There is a reason that Kentucky was a No. 5-seed this season.

This was a flawed basketball team.

They were young. They didn’t have enough shooting. Their offense was entirely too predictable, even when they were winning. If Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Kevin Knox weren’t carrying the load for them on that end, they didn’t really have anywhere to turn. And on Thursday night, they ran into a team that had the personnel and a game-plan to take away Kentucky’s two go-to guys.

Kansas State is not overly talented, but what they have in abundance are tough, athletic and older guards that are going to put in a shift on the defensive end of the floor. Kentucky fans may not know who Barry Brown is, but I guarantee you that fans of every Big 12 team can tell you just how good he can be. I guarantee that coaches in the Big 12 can tell you just how annoying their guards are, and those little guards played that role to perfection.

To put it another way, it wasn’t a fluke that Gilgeous-Alexander struggled to make plays off the dribble the way he has for the last two months of the season. It wasn’t an accident that Kevin Knox struggled to find a way to get the looks he had become accustomed to getting coming off of Kentucky’s circle sets.

And in a 40 minute basketball game, when one team matches up well with another, something as simple as Xavier Sneed catching fire and Washington going 8-for-20 from the foul line will get you beat.

But that’s neither here nor there.

Because the real point that I am trying to make here is that this particular Kentucky team just wasn’t all that good. They were young. They were injured. They had their flaws masked by the improvement of a couple of kids who played out of their minds for long stretches of the season, and I just don’t think that’s something that should be overlooked.

Maybe this is just my mindset as a fan. I enjoy the ride more than I need to celebrate the ending. Give me a reason to tune in every game. Make me excited to have the monotony of a week broken up when the ball tips. I’m good.

And I think this Kentucky team accomplished just that.

But two weeks ago, no one thought this team had a shot of getting to the Elite 8. Two months ago, every Kentucky fan would have taken a trip to the second weekend in a heartbeat.

The ending sucked.

No doubt about it.

But this team kept fighting and kept improving and, in the end, lost because someone took makeup remover to the cosmetics that Calipari applied.

Be disappointed, but don’t lost sight of the big picture.

VIDEO: Townes’ late 3 seals Loyola’s win over Nevada

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Nevada was faced with a dilemma. The Wolf Pack were down just one possession – just one point – and were on defense with with a five-second differential between the game and shot clocks.

Foul and extend the game or play it out and hope for a stop?

Nevada opted to play it straight-up, and Loyola hit them with the worst-case scenario – a 3-pointer at the end of the shot clock.

The 3-pointer from Marques Townes made it a two-possession game and the clock all but ruled out the possibility for two possession.

And that’s why Loyola is now in the Elite Eight.

2018 NCAA Tournament: Saturday’s tip times, TV channels, announcer pairings

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Half the spots in the Final Four are up for grabs Saturday. Be sure you know where your TV needs to be before the nets are cut down.

Atlanta: Brian Anderson, Chris Webber and Lisa Byington

  • 6:09 p.m. – No. 9 Kansas State vs. No. 11 Loyola, TBS

Los Angeles: Kevin Harlan, Reggie Miller, Dan Bonner and Dana Jacobson

  • 8:49 – No. 3 Michigan vs. No. 9 Florida State, TBS

VIDEO: This is the shot that ended Kentucky’s season

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Barry Brown has spent all season being underrated.

And Kentucky found that out the hard way on Thursday night.

This bucket with 18 seconds left gave Kansas State a lead they would never relinquish in a win over Kentucky in the Sweet 16.

Florida State advances past Gonzaga to Elite Eight

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Florida State was an afterthought heading into the season in an ACC that was as loaded as it was top-heavy.

They were a No. 9-seed in the NCAA tournament in part because they were able to pick off North Carolina and Clemson at home by a combined three points.

They needed three overtimes to hold off Miami and Syracuse at home. They needed a win over Boston College on Senior Night to avoid heading into the ACC tournament with a losing record, and they ended up going and losing in the first round of the ACC tournament to a Louisville that never really sniffed the bubble and parted ways with their interim head coach as soon as their NIT run ended.

They were almost universally picked to lose in the first round of the NCAA tournament to Missouri because everyone knew Michael Porter Jr. was back and secretly hoped that the potential top five pick might actually make some noise as a collegian before his run came to an end.

The Seminoles have been written off and ignored for the entire college basketball season.

And now they are a win away from the Final Four.

Terance Mann scored 18 points and Florida State held fourth-seeded Gonzaga to 35 percent shooting as the Seminoles advanced to their first Elite 8 since 1993 with a 75-60 win on Thursday night. The Seminoles will advance to take on No. 3-seed Michigan with a trip to the Final Four on the line. They have not been to a Final Four since 1972, which was the last Elite 8 before their last Elite 8.

Put another way, the program that has been ignored all season long has been to precisely one Elite 8 since 1972.

That’s a long time to be irrelevant.

So I guess it’s time that we all started to pay attention.

And here’s the interesting part of this: The Seminoles are actually a fun team to watch this year. This is not the kind of grind-it-out Florida State teams that we have become accustomed to with Leonard Hamilton at the helm of this program. They don’t try to play as many enormous human beings at one time as they can. Florida State plays a lot of small-ball. They have a lot of physical, athletic and switchable defenders. They press. They try to force turnovers. They get out and run in transition. They have a couple dudes; Mann and Braian Angola and M.J. Carter. They’re not exactly VCU and they’re not exactly West Virginia and they’re not exactly last season’s South Carolina, but there’s a little bit of all of them there.

And that’s what did Gonzaga in.

The Zags entered this game short-handed, as their starting five-man Killian Tillie was unable to go due to a hip injury that he aggravated during warmups, but that would not have made all that much of a difference in the Staples Center.

The issue was guard play.

Florida State’s pressure simply overwhelmed Gonzaga’s guards. Josh Perkins, Silas Melson and Zach Norvell were a combined 10-for-36 from the floor and had a nightmare-of-a-time trying to get the ball into the lane. The Zags committed 13 turnovers, trailed by 12 within the first ten minutes of the game and never really made a run keeping this thing within striking distance.

If there was an issue with Tillie being out, it came when Gonzaga tried to space the floor.

The Zags were playing without enough shooters, particularly in the front court. That clogged the paint and made it difficult for the likes of Johnathan Williams III and Rui Hachimura to get some space down there to operate. Perhaps the most telling stat on Thursday — more than Gonzaga’s 34 percent shooting or the 5-for-20 that they shot from three — was that the Zags were 8-for-27 on layups on the night.


For 27.


And it makes me wonder just how Michigan is going to be able to handle this group, but that’s neither here nor there.

We’ll get to it in time.

For now, it is time for the Seminoles and their fans to basket in this moment.

They were right, we were wrong.