As the Billikens sit and wait for a time in which they can play their next game, taking stock in what has come so far can be a valuable tool for tempering expectations for the future.
On one hand; The Billikens have played themselves into national relevance. They have won meaningful games and have done so in a manner that have truly shown off just how talented they are, and what their potential could be come March Madness. Jordan Goodwin is a legit star collegiate player. Hasahn French is an all-conference player again. There have been many other pleasant surprises among other players. Demarius Jacobs has emerged as a very reliable scorer at all three levels, Martan Linssen has transformed into an immediately impactful presence, and Fred Thatch Jr is making a very exciting return to form after missing a whole season due to a mystery illness and all this despite the challenges of the COVID pandemic.
But… there has been a troubling trend among some other players that has emerged and that deserves to be talked about.
After breaking out in a major way against LSU, and earning himself national attention, Javonte Perkins has struggled in the team’s final stretch of games that ended non-conference play. While his stats looked only marginally lessened, his efficiency and performance were steps behind what we came to expect from the transfer senior. Jimmy Bell Jr has yet to really garner any significant time on the floor, though he has been hampered by an injury early in the year so perhaps it’s too early to judge. Gibson Jimerson has shown development on the offensive end but has not been nearly as impactful as hoped, considering his stalled development as a defender.
Yuri Collins has been the lone exception to a second-year player avoiding the sophomore slump in the 2020-21 SLU Basketball season. Plus, Terrence Hargrove Jr. To his credit, he is playing more than he did this time last year and is slowly developing. It’s hard to keep him out of the context of this sophomore season conversation and he certainly deserves credit.
The sophomore slump exists as a theory for a reason. While it isn’t a guarantee it certainly has merit as a concept and is applicable in many cases. These players are no longer going to surprise anyone. Other teams know you and now have ample video to watch and to sniff out your best moves. Head Coach Travis Ford spoke to how Javonte has been struggling with this in a before the A-10 opener against Duquesne, which was ultimately shut down.
“Well, he’s probably first on the scouting report now in terms of recognizing guys you have to stop. We have lots of guys on our team you have to prepare for in certain way but in terms of scoring the basketball he’s gone from third or fourth guy or whatever on the list to now he’s on top of the list.” Travis Ford said in a Zoom call with reporters, continuing, “We knew that this summer, and we tried to prepare him for that this summer. I think he kind of listened with one ear and not both at times, but we knew it was coming.”
“He’s starting to see it a little bit, I think it’s going to require him to adjust a little bit. Have some counters and some little things. Not that you want to completely change your game, but you got to understand that you’re not just going to get away with everything you’re used to.”
The most notable place you see players like Perkins struggle is when falling into their favorite moves or sets thinking/hoping to get themselves out of a slump. Last season, and early in this one to an extent, Javonte would use a set which sends him hooking around a high post screener, leaving him wide open on the elbow for a jump shot he is extremely comfortable with. Now defenders’ scoot under the screen, meet him at the spot and he doesn’t have anywhere to go. Gibson isn’t getting nearly as many open or half-covered looks behind the arc because defenders know they can’t sag off of him.
It’s not that these players are all of a sudden bad. Perkins and Jimerson are first and third in scoring on a top 25 team in the nation and squarely in the NCAA tournament conversation…things just aren’t as easy, and they need to learn to adjust.
This isn’t so much a problem for players like Jimerson and Bell. They are both still in the infancy of their college basketball careers. For a team with high dreams in the immediate, having them step up to another level would be ideal. For a player like Javonte Perkins, experiencing a sophomore, or maybe second-year slump, is less than ideal for the team’s sake and his personal professional aspirations.
Javonte could return for a third year at SLU (a fifth overall college season) and hasn’t yet made his intentions known whereas fellow seniors Jordan Goodwin and Hasahn French have been upfront with their intention to leave. But until he does, Perkins has to wrestle with the fact that he isn’t playing as well as he potentially could, and that this is the “last” opportunity for scouts to see him in action. It’s a difficult place to be in.
The Billikens are overall, fine even with these struggles. They are deep enough to overcome the struggles that are currently facing. Some of their second-year players enjoy the developmental pipeline ready churn out talent to avoid major slumps. Demarius Jacobs is an excellent example of a player struggling to find his rhythm in his sophomore season and being developed through his struggles to ultimately become a high impact contributor.
But…. If the Bills want to reach the heights, they dream they can this season, they will need to see some of these players shake off the weights of sophomore stardom and begin their assent upwards. Saint Louis can be good even when they aren’t at full strength…they can be great when they are.