It’s hard to look at the Saint Louis University Men’s basketball program and be filled with unbridled optimism. Excitement, yes, Travis Ford’s team returned to the court for the first time yesterday after nearly a month, and the Billikens are still a team whose talent can take them a long way.

But unbridled optimism would be overlooking the cataclysmic chasm of challenge that faces the team in the days and weeks ahead. 80% of the team experienced a devastating illness with unknown long-term effects and varying short term symptoms. The best-case scenario, if nobody experienced significant symptoms and everyone has been sitting in an apartment or hotel room alone for three weeks, is just that, the team has been sitting alone for three weeks.

SLU is starting over. They have to recondition their bodies, relearn the past mistakes, and get their on-court touch and mentality back. Let alone the fact that Travis Ford seems to worry that his team won’t remember the plays, the Billikens are facing a challenge that, while many have faced in 2020-21, not many have faced in the same or similar ways that Saint Louis has faced.

Now consider the fact that the top of the A-10 is really good.

Success in the A-10 is never guaranteed. The Billikens had played their way into national respect in the non-conference, earning a top-25 AP ranking, and solidly placed themselves in the At-Large conversation in the NCAA tournament. But escaping the gauntlet that is the A-10 is extremely difficult even in a normal year. Beating St. Bonaventure, Richmond, Dayton, VCU, Davidson, Rhode Island, UMass, Duquesne, and all the other bottom feeders without dropping a game is extremely challenging. It was a testament to Dayton’s ability last season to go night-after-night without a lemon of a game.

In the A-10, you almost aren’t allowed a night off. Which is where things become uncomfortable. In the Big East, ACC, SEC, Big 10, Big 12, and even the Pac-12, an in-conference loss is acceptable because the conferences are well received. In the A-10, a loss takes you from “solidly-in” to “bubble” to “out” very quickly. The St. Bonaventure Bonnies are 7-1 and just breaking into the at-large conversation now, and a loss to Davidson (which is not a terrible loss by any means) sends them spiraling out of the conversation. Dayton lost to Fordham (which is a bad loss, it’s impossible to argue otherwise), and Dayton fans have deemed the season “over” in January.

So here lies the Billikens uphill fight. The A-10 has not changed; that was already going to be difficult under the most normal stances. No one is going to take it easy on the Bills because they’ve been sick. Now they have to come back and compete despite being behind the eight ball. They have to play their biggest conference rival in their return game, taking on Dayton just five days after their first practice, Richmond just three days later, and will likely have to play an extremely condensed schedule to make up some of the games they have missed to this point.

In practice, the Billikens are operating with caution and patience to make their way back to games. Players are being monitored with heart rate trackers and are told to sit out if they feel their heart rate gets too high. Players have also been told to take rests when/if they feel dizzy. But as much as caution is important and playing a factor, Head Coach Travis Ford recognizance the need to get things moving.

“We have to get in shape, they have to be tested a little bit,” Ford said during the first press availability of the new year, “Just to be able to see where they’re at, I want to try and have a normal practice…Not overly pushed, because I want to make sure their safe. But we do have a plan in place to be ready to play by Tuesday.”

But the Billikens were always going to have to have a special season to accomplish their goals. They don’t benefit from being a power conference school, and Mid-Majors always have to bat well above their weight to get the respect they deserve. So, an opportunity lies in wait if you are willing to see the glass half-full perspective of this month-long shutdown.

If Travis Ford and his Billikens can stay the course and achieve what they set out to back in November, we may be looking at the best SLU basketball season in program history. A ranked team, making a tournament run, with a potential conference championship to boot despite all of the pandemic shortened season challenges. Somehow, the pause in the season would make the year even greater should things continue to roll for the Billikens.

The long-term goals are still very much in play. The belief around the program is that the team will eventually reach its peak despite the pause. The Travis Ford experience is very much building for March, and that schedule is still achievable.  In the immediate, they are more susceptible to dropped games and disappointing outcomes, leading to limited opportunities come March. That being said, some believe the Billikens have proven their worth thus far, and the pause and positive tests will be taken into consideration when making the field for the Big Dance. Only time will tell, though, and I’m sure no one will want to rest on their laurels and be on the outside looking in.

Lots of forecasting can be done to try and predict what exactly the Billikens will look like. Travis Ford says that everyone “feels ok” and sickness is not an issue at this point. Some guys lost some weight, no one looks out of shape. But also, that some guys look better than others on the conditioning end.

Ford summarizes his feelings and thoughts on the challenges at hand well though, “The hardest part is the unknown…its uncharted territory.”