By Carter Chapley
St. Louis, MO
The Billikens looked like a renewed team going into the half in their road game at UMass. Up seven going into the mid-game break, the Billikens played some of their best offense of the season and looked to be building off the successes of the previous weekends win.
But that all fell apart in the second half.
Tre Mitchell spent the back end of the game dominating the post and proving why he is the likely rookie of the year in the A-10. The Billikens shooting went dead cold, and their decision making went sour as to many empty possessions, turnovers allowed the Minutemen to not only get back into the game but win the whole thing in what has to be the collapse of the year for SLU.
Road games in the A-10 are a gauntlet for everyone in the conference. Home teams are 127-55 this season (including non-conference). The Billikens had traveled well early in the season but have not remotely had the same success since the new year turned over.
On the one hand, it is possible to give this group some breathing room and cut them some slack. They are a young team that is still learning, developing, and needs to learn these hard lessons. Yuri Collins has the highest possession rate on the roster, and thus, many of these lapses in decision making stem from him. This team was always tapped to be one that would both win games they shouldn’t and lose games they shouldn’t, and that was before they lost two of their best players to injury.
On the other hand, this is a group of players who have had a ton of minutes, experiences, and opportunities to this point and dropping a game like this one, to a team that is both younger and not nearly as deep with talent as they are, is inexcusable. Growing pains or not, this group has higher aspirations than this.
Both of these things are true, making it frustrating for the Billiken faithful to understand performances like this one. The Billikens showed they compete; they showed hustle. They followed the lead of Jordan Goodwin, who once again earned a double-double but was outgunned in the second half.
Once Hasahn French and Jimmy Bell Jr were put into foul trouble, there was no stopping Tre Mitchell. When given the space to operate without the fear of the physicality from the Billiken big man, Tre had his way anywhere he went on the floor. SLU needs to find a way to 1.) not allow their big men to get bullied into foul submission, or at the very least mitigate that problem, or, 2.) not get outgunned in those situations and keep pace with the onslaught that comes with that lack of discipline.
Looking at the scoring chart, there are far too many spreads of three or four minutes with no offensive production. Early in the first half, the Billikens had the opportunity to put the game out of reach. Leading by 16 with 7:17 to play, they went on a five-minute scoring drought allowing UMass to cut the lead to seven, they then went the final two minutes without a basket allowing the Minutemen to keep pace and stay in the game.
It’s easy to say “coulda, shoulda, woulda” if the Billikens step on the gas, end the half with a 20-point lead and put the game away. But they didn’t, they never do. They lack the maturity, or execution of a killer instinct, to put away wins. They allowed Dayton to escape in a similar way, even in the La Salle win, which was never in question, they let the Explorers hang around and were outscored in the second half.
Beyond the bizarre decision making from players and coaches alike, this is the most pressing issue for the Billikens coming out of this game. They don’t close games out, with a lead they coast to the finish. They need the urgency of a comeback or a close game to play their best basketball.
With this loss, SLU has put themselves behind the 8-ball in terms of both NCAA dreams and A-10 tournament dreams. They were fortunate to remain in just 6th place in the conference, and while they could have things fall their way, and sneak their way into that double-bye still…it is extremely unlikely.
At one point this season, it was clear that the Billikens would be playing in postseason games beyond just the A-10 tournament. While they are certainly in the running still for an NIT bid or even a CBI bid. They are playing their way out of those situations, and are now on the outside looking in for a hypothetical home game in one of those events. They will need another big turnaround at some point in the season.
Fortunately, the college basketball season rolls on. The Billikens will have a chance to win a big home game over VCU this Friday in prime time. If they want to continue keeping these goals of tournament glory and post-season life in check, they will need to bounce back.
The light is dim on the Billikens right now, but it is not out.