It was an excellent afternoon in Midtown for the Billikens. They continued their dominance over the Spiders, beating them for fourth straight time and the sixth time in their last seven meetings. Winning their A10 opener for the first time in three years.
Here are 10 takeaways I had from the Billikens 76-69 win over Richmond.
One – This isn’t last year’s Covid pause.
First and foremost, this year’s Covid pause was not nearly as long nor was as devastating as the break SLU took over Christmas last season. It’s unclear just how many guys didn’t get Covid this time around but those that didn’t could stay in the Gym. Some players came out of protocols earlier than others and had more time to recondition and get back to fighting form, and most importantly even those who tested positive I’m told had extremely mild symptoms if any at all.
All of this is to say there was reasonable concern going into this game that the Billikens players would look justifiably worn down or not in condition to give their usual minutes/efforts.
But it was the exact opposite of that. Save for Marten Linssen who’s trying to get over an ankle injury, the team looked as physically fit and energetic as they did prior to their pause. Some of the skills looked a little rusty, the shooters touch a hair off, but largely that’s all.
When the Billikens came back last season and lost their first two to Dayton and La Salle the energy loss was palpable. Games would wain on, and you’d see the effects of the layoff more dramatically. Starting from a position of physical fitness to fight back against this layoff puts the Bills way ahead of schedule comparatively.
Two – Yuri Collins has answered the call.
This was the next evolution of Yuri’s basketball renaissance. Yuri made things happen on offense from a passing and scoring perspective. He was dynamic in all the right ways.
Best part was it didn’t feel like Yuri’s scoring outburst was crazy or that it took away from anything else he was doing. He played within the flow and took what they gave him. If you get this every night out of Yuri, he’s a lock for first team all-A10 and could be a player of the year candidate.
Largely, this is a very similar pathway to success we saw from Yuri at the high school level. In his first two seasons at St. Mary’s, he was a distributor only and then in his junior and senior season he took over as a more dynamic scoring threat. Eventually taking his team to a finals.
Three – DPOY Fred?
Somehow, Fred continues to be underrated at every turn. I think it’s because he doesn’t start? And because no one skill of his particularly flashes out? But Fred’s ability to contribute to winning basketball seems so undervalued.
He only had 3 points, 2 boards, and an assist but he was a team high +10 in his 20 minutes on the floor. He had the assignment of guarding Burton, Gilyard, and Cayo in stints and was a monster in all of his assignments. He limited touches and entries, stopped drives, blocked two shots. He threw the clamps on and probably would have had more minutes if not for some cheap fouls, which, is probably the only true flaw in his game thus far.
It’s unlikely Fred wins the Defensive Player of the Year award in the A10 (he doesn’t get the counting stats necessary which, is what it is) but he damn well should be in the conversation. Given how the voting works in the A10, and how only coaches vote, I could see them sending an All-Defense team award his way because of how impactful he is.
Four- In Game Adjustments.
Gibson Jimerson had 17 points but only took two shots in the second half. Largely Gibson was factored out of the second half offense, but it seemed to be intentional. Jacob Gilyard was a menace in the first half and he was largely covering Jimerson in the half court man defense Gilyard is a ball hawk and would read the Collins passes to Jimerson like a children’s book. His four first half steals led to 7 points and largely kept the Spiders in the game.
In the second half, Gibson became less involved. He kept Gilyard confined to guarding him in the corner and eliminated his defensive impact on the game. After the 4 steals in half one, he had none in the second. Making it far harder to get easy points for Richmond and keeping the flow of the game in SLU’s favor.
It’s hard to know who motivated these changes, can probably narrow it down to Yuri just reading defenses and keeping it away from that side of the floor…but it seems way to coordinated so likely Ford, but after a real focus on getting Jimerson shots and touches in the first, he was an excellent decoy and was highly effective.
Five – Some guys are on the cusp of greatness.
This is largely about Jordan Nesbitt, but Markhi Strickland also deserves some flowers. Markhi only got three minutes but the roadmap for success is very clear. He’s starting to become more solid on defense and he understands how to use his athleticism to bring energy. He feels very close to figuring it all out.
Nesbitt feels like his on the cusp of a different tier of “figuring it all out” and you can see stretches of just how elite he can be. As a freshman he impacts every aspect of the game and is growing into a player you really have to plan for.
12 points, 3 boards, an assist and 2 steal shows that there are so many ways he contributes even if you don’t see the energy and intensity, he brings on the defensive end.
His confidence is unmatched, and he isn’t afraid of anyone. Twice he went directly at Richmond’s top defenders in the paint and finished over them.
In the final minutes of the game Nesbitt was asked to guard Richmond’s top scorer in Burton and Jordan was able to use his strength and mobility to force a really tough shot and ultimately (kind of) iced the game because of it.
Now that he’s gotten used the defensive schemes and systems Travis Ford wants to run and isn’t getting lost on that end, he’s a hard guy to keep off the floor. I’m led to wonder if Nesbitt wasn’t one of the guys who became available yesterday or this morning based on him not starting. But once he’s got some practice time back under his belt, I think his trajectory is only going up.
Six—Francis must finish.
Another guy who feels like he’s on the cusp. He was great on defense against the Spiders, and didn’t really allow anything easy to ether of Richmond’s top post men. Per Statcast’s analytics he had more stops and challenges than anyone on the floor tonight, including a highlight steal and slam. But on the offensive end Francis has been inconsistent in his offense at the rim. Shooting just 51.1% at the rim and 44% from other paint shot, and missing some really clean looks after between his man with excellent post footwork. If he can just find that extra soft touch the Billikens will get another lethal weapon.
All this to say, he’s way to talented at getting good looks in the post to miss as often as he does. I’m sure it’s more frustrating to Francis than it is anyone else.
Seven – No Easy Looks
Outside of a handful of turnovers above the break, it felt that once SLU was on defense in the half court, they did a great job challenging shots and forcing Richmond to work hard for their points. They got beat on non-set defenses but more on that later.
Eight – Burton and Questions
Tyler Burton really is the Obi Wan Kenobi for Richmond and Chris Mooney this year. “Help me Tyler Burton, you’re our only hope”.
Richmond is way too old and experienced to be as soft and disorganized as they appear to be. But when you have a star like Burton that solves a lot of problems. It almost worked today. Burtons legit.
Nine – Defensive Rebounding is a must fix
Rebounding hasn’t been a problem for the Billikens in a long time. Losing Goodwin and French has changed that.
Saint Louis lost the board battle 46-36 and gave up 14 offensive rebounds to their 9. What was once a strength has continued to bite them in the butt as giving up extra opportunities is largely what cost them in the UAB and Belmont losses, and it allowed the Spiders to stick around today. On three separate occasions offensive rebounds led to kickouts to wide open three-point shooters.
I don’t know if that fixable through practice or if it’s a focus and highlighting issue. But Travis Ford teams have been good at in the past, so it stands to reason he can coach this team up on it.
Ten – We’ll meet again.
We don’t know when the Billikens play next, La Salle is on Covid pause so that Wednesday matchup is in question and who knows if Olean for Bonaventure will be on the table at this rate.
Travis Ford indicated they may look to add a non-conference game and if another long pause happens, maybe looking for any opponent is better than no opponent because a top team can’t play. This team needs to play to get better and playing a game against a say 150-200 KenPom team is better for development than sitting around for 2 weeks…again.