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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
– 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.