This season’s been a long time coming for Rick Majerus and St. Louis.
After four seasons mostly spent rebuilding and refining the defense (and the first losing season of his 25-year coaching career), the Billikens (25-7) finally broke through this year, finishing second in the A-10 and making the Big Dance for the first time since 2000.
Also gratifying to Majerus? How his players perform in the classroom. Seniors Brian Conklin and Kyle Cassity have graduated with honors and are working on their MBAs. Sophomores Dwayne Evans and Jake Barnett carry a 4.0 GPA. He’s downright giddy about St. Louis, simple as that.
“If academics counted, we might be the national champion,” Majerus said this week. “They’re probably No. 1. What box don’t we check anymore? We’ve got great kids, our attendance was up 20 percent, we’ve won on the road, we play a great schedule, we’re in the tournament.”
So how do his Billikens get rewarded? With a 9 seed in the West, matched up against Memphis on Friday. Hardly fair for two teams who play as well as 5 seeds. (It’s also not that fair to 1 seed Michigan State.)
The Tigers are slight favorites, but don’t be surprised if St. Louis pulls off the win and gives Michigan State all it can handle on Sunday. Majerus is that good. His team doesn’t play pretty basketball – the defense is great, but can be excruciating to watch – but it’s a testament to his skill that they’re here.
Whether or not he deserved more recognition this season, there is no denying Rick Majerus can coach the game of basketball. For example, he once took a team whose third-best player was Hanno Mottola and beat a team whose third-best player was Miles Simon by 25 to earn a berth in the Final Four. Majerus might need less talent to win that any other coach in the country. I’m being presumptuous but perhaps the way things have unfolded this season is exactly how Rick Majerus wants it, because he has the opportunity to prove exactly that. On Friday, he’ll take a team whose third-best player is some dude named Cody Ellis against a team whose third-best player is Tarik Black, a projected future first-round pick.
If his team wins, Majerus can show the world yet again that he doesn’t need five-star talent to win, and if his team loses, that’s exactly what you’d expect of a team whose third-best player is Cody Ellis. Either way, it makes Friday night’s game the most compelling game of the round of 64* for me. And it tells me there’s no need to feel sorry for Saint Louis, after all.
Hey, you wanna feel sorry for someone, feel sorry for Memphis. It’s the one that has to play against the Billikens’ defense.
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