By Carter Chapley
St. Louis, MO
At the season’s tip-off, the prevailing sentiment for the Billikens is that they are deep, talented, and young. Many, including myself, believed that this group had all the pieces to surprise people and become a force in the A-10. They also thought that these groups’ actual ceiling was wildly unpredictable. I believed that the Bills were going to beat some teams they shouldn’t, but ultimately lose to some teams they should beat.
I have ultimately been proven correct thus far, but it would be unfair for me to say that I held that belief for the entirety of the season. After a steady string of non-conference performances, the 2019/2020 Billikens looked like a group poised to compete and, at the very least, take care of business against subpar teams. Even if the games were ugly, they were getting the results they wanted. They showed resolve and maturity. Now, however, six games into the conference season, the Billikens have put themselves into a hole that gets deeper and deeper.
The Billikens dropped to a pedestrian 3-3 in A-10 play after a disappointing loss to the Davidson Wildcats 71-59. Despite tying the game late in the second half, the Bills were unable to take advantage and creep out a win on the road despite playing a seemingly weaker opponent.
The margin for error to earn an at large bid in the NCAA tournament was thin as it was. But after losing to an 8-9 Davidson team who has been one of the most underachieving teams in the country thus far, the light is nearly out on that dream. There are too many other outstanding teams in the A-10 who will battle with them for that spot. The Bills would have to play virtually spotless basketball down the stretch to separate themselves from the pack and become a favorite for that bid.
And based on their performances at Duquesne and now Davidson, I don’t see the Billikens staying that consistent.
What was once just a season-opening bad game in Pittsburgh is now starting to feel like a trend. The Billikens are not consistent with their play. They get up for the big games and are talented enough to beat up on teams who are far below them. But in competitive matches against similarly able teams, the Bills appear not yet to possess the maturity to play up to their potential and put away those all-important middle of the pack conference victories.
They are still a young team, Jordan Goodwin and Hasahn French are still just juniors who are leading a group of players who are mostly playing in their first D1 season. Could they have done more? Yes. This team lives and dies on their contributions. But it may be time to start pumping the breaks on how high the ceiling of this current group is.
I say all this because it would be one thing if Davidson went out, played their game, and the Billikens lost because of it. But that wasn’t the case; a far smaller and less physical Davidson bullied the Billikens. The Bills played away from their identity, which is a problem because they are a team built on grit, toughness, intensity, and energy. If they are being dominated in key stats like rebounds, it’s a sign that the Billikens did not stick to who they are. When the Bills struggle, it is rarely a byproduct inability or luck, and more often a result of mental unpreparedness.
The Wildcats came in and had a plan and executed it. The crowded out the pain, triple or quadruple teamed Hasahn French, and forced the Billikens to play small ball. And even that almost didn’t work; the Bills had one of their best shooting nights of the year. Javonte Perkins and Tay Weaver looked like serious outside threats. And yet, when push came to shove, the Bills were unable to capitalize.
Yuri Collins did the best he could to contain the guard play of Jon Axel Gudmundsson, Kellan Grady, and Carter Collins, who used their speed to burn the Bills 1-on-1 and ether get easy layups or quick fouls. But it was ultimately an exposure game for the Freshman who had five fouls and was a step behind all night despite his casual six assists. He is going to have growing pains; however, it was difficult to watch the rookie struggle time and time again with no assistance. The Wildcats got anything they wanted around him.
The summary of the Bills trip to North Carolina is that they were bullied and beaten by a lesser group. Saint Louis got beat at its own game. Travis Ford was quick to take the blame for the loss, telling Stu Durando of the Post-Dispatch post-game, “We’ll be looking at everything. I don’t know how much is X’s and O’s until I watch, but the mentality of who we are was not there. I’ll take responsibility, and I’ll do something about it.” I don’t think Travis is the core problem, but as head coach, he is the guy. All changes will roll through him.
Last season the Bills dropped five straight conference games and still found themselves in the mix for a high seed in the A-10 tournament. Fortune for the Bills, they will soon have a new chance to right the ship and start anew in short order. While the Bills national window is closing, the conference one is very much still in their control. This team has the talent to put together a run, and they can mentally turn over a new page at any point. The 2019-2020 season is very much still in the hands of the Saint Louis Billikens, and even though it can slip away quickly, this team has the resources to seize the moment and take advantage at any point.