The Billikens have been locked down since December 23rd due to a positive COVID result in the program. But apparently, that does not mean the national media, or the NCAA for that matter, have forgotten about the Billikens.
For the first time since the 2013-2014 season, the Saint Louis University Billikens have been ranked by the Associated Press. The Billikens came in at number 23 in this week’s poll, despite not playing any games. The Bills had sat in and around the AP’s coveted national ranking since the opening week of the season when they beat SEC power LSU at Chaifetz Arena. They rose as high as 27th in the receiving votes until their lone loss of the season to Minnesota.
It’s hard to fully understand how the Billikens’ narrative has swung so far since the December 23rd shut down. Usually, the only real way to break into the AP top 25 is to get a signature win during the week. Mizzou did just that when they beat Illinois, and the Tigers have been ranked ever since. The Billikens were very much on the outside of this list looking in until they could get another statement win.
The only reason I can think of how the Billikens found themselves with more votes is a combination of factors around them. A mixture of the rise of Minnesota’s national profile, having beaten Iowa, Michigan State, and Ohio State since beating SLU, and A-10 play potentially revealing that SLU is in a class of its own in the conference. It is possible voters see the top team in the A-10 as worthy of votes, and thus, SLU fits the bill.
SLU has long gotten praise as a team that should be ranked this season, but this is the first time they have earned the fruits of their labor. While it’s hard to fully grasp said ranking, it is certainly one Travis Ford and his program will accept and celebrate. This is Travis Ford’s first ranking since 2014-15 when he led the Oklahoma State Cowboys, and in many ways, proof of a promise kept in terms of the goals he set out when he first took over the program.
The Billikens also received praise from the NCAA, coming in ranked number 12 in the first NET (National Evaluation Tool) rankings of the 2020-21 season. The NET is the primary ranking tool used by the NCAA when making selections for the national tournament in March and where teams will be seeded in the big dance.
12 is dramatically higher than 23, but the ranking is indicative of some hard work done by the SLU staff. While the AP ranking is based on media members’ voting, the NET is based on analytical calculations based on game outcomes.
The Billiken staff has been actively researching and investigating how to understand and embrace the NET’s nuances for years. The outcomes of the NET have felt like an inexact science since its inception in 2018. I’ve been told the Billikens have had conversations with multiple experts in the NET all the way from the NCAA office to Joe Lunardi, ESPN’s chief Bracketologist, to understand how to best schedule non-conference opponents and get the best results possible.
Ultimately this research led to the Billikens understanding that playing games against Power 5 conference teams are a must to be respected. In essence, losses to Power 5 teams are more valuable than wins over lesser teams. This led to the Billikens scheduling as many games as possible under these parameters and, at a certain point, only seeking out those types of games.
SLU ultimately had many of these games rescheduled or canceled. Games against Memphis and San Diego State moved to later years. An event with teams like Michigan State and Gonzaga, among others, outright canceled. All things considered, the ability to play a schedule with LSU, NC State, and Minnesota included despite all these other cancellations is a testament to this understanding.
The NET has been altered to better fit the oddities of the 2020 season, dropping from five key pieces of information to just two (removing qualities like win-percentage, adjusted win-percentage, and score margin from the algorithm); the NET remains the primary tool to watch, and they will be updated daily now.
It will be unlikely the Billikens return to action in the immediate future. While the A-10 guidelines indicate that SLU could return to action this week, St. Louis’s city has more conservative guidelines requiring extra days of quarantine. The Bills may fall out of the rankings next week or drop in the NET by virtue of others rising.
That being said, the Billikens are respected and are ranked. That’s an achievement to celebrate for those in the program and the fans of it.