By Carter Chapley
St. Louis, MO
The Billikens were playing some of their best basketball of the season heading into the 2019 Christmas break. They won an excellent game against a Big 12 opponent on the road despite a significant personnel loss in the form of Gibson Jimerson’s season-ending surgery. All things were looking up for SLU heading into the closing parts of the non-conference schedule.
Then the team took 5 days off for the Christmas holiday break, and things just haven’t looked as smooth since. They have played three close games against teams where all previous evidence would indicate they should have blown out. And they dropped their Atlantic 10 opener at Duquesne, where they looked more disjointed than ever.
Travis Ford both before and after the break immediately following the win over K-State on December 21st told the media that he really wished there wasn’t a break because of how well he felt his team was playing. He didn’t want them to lose that flow to both how they felt in games, and how productive their practices were going.
SLU’s men’s basketball team is being forced to adapt on the fly, and that problem has only been exacerbated by the break that took place. In many ways, what the Billikens are experiencing now is an eerie call back to what they went through last year when Carte’are Gordon left the program.
Obviously, the context of the situation is different and should not be related on a one-for-one basis. But the outcomes are similar enough to draw a connection. At the end of the first semester, the Billikens lost a key player to their rotation and had to renew their game plan. I would argue that losing Gibson Jimerson is a harsher blow than last year’s team losing Cart’are Gordon, but substantial losses all the same.
When Gordon left, the Billiken’s front-court depth was exposed. Still, a veteran team with high-quality players were able to do without. Despite this, they struggled through the middle part of their schedule while they tried to find themselves, losing four straight at the end of January.
Gibson Jimerson’s presence was a part of the symbiotic relationship the offensive flow had that lead to early-season success. Losing him sends the whole ecosystem into flux, and the struggles are apparent. Hasahn French is regularly triple-teamed. Jordan Goodwin is iced out on the boards because teams can pack the paint better and slashers like Javonte Perkins and, to a lesser extent, Terrence Hargrove have to be more creative as simply put, there is a dire lack of spacing.
But now the Billikens are far deeper, and by virtue of that depth, they are far more talented. They have more pieces to survive the loss of a critical player. They are visibly working through gaining a new identity, or at the very least, workshopping how they can adapt the old one to make it work. They are also going through all this while having to adapt five critical guys to the intensity and speed of A-10 Conference play. A notable factor considering the amount of stock Travis Ford puts into it.
Fortunately for the Billikens, the issues that plague them are starting to alleviate. In hindsight it might seem like this was the perfect time to go through this struggle, they have found ways to win despite not playing well and have been able to get away with a lot of learning against weak teams. As they head into a three-game stretch against elite competition, they have some things sorted out.
In the opening 10 minutes of the game against George Washington, the Billikens looked like the team they could be. They played up-tempo, made smart passes, and kept the defense guessing. They showed signs of this again in spurts throughout the game. But the GW Head Coach Jamion Christian made an adjustment, slowed the Billikens down, and got themselves back into the game.
Throughout the night, the Billikens used their passing to create open looks for themselves and look more comfortable, some of those shots didn’t go in, but the creation of those looks is encouraging. Hasahn French continues to show how excellent of a passer he is, and despite having what felt like maybe his worse shooting performance as a Billiken, he still navigates the paint and creates so much for his teammates that it’s an acceptable ‘off night.’ If he gets his touchback and some of those easy shots he missed, go in instead, then the outcome of this game is far more lopsided.
The primary issue is that with the way this team shoots free throws, they cannot afford to go on extended runs of four to five minutes where they don’t hit a field goal. They need to be able to fill the gaps more effectively and not let teams go on unanswered runs in the middle of the game. Slowing down the offense has worked for Travis Ford in the past, but with this team, keeping up their speed and flow will be their best opportunity to get some easy transition buckets and give their defense some breathing room. It will also let them feature their most significant skills more effectively, their athleticism, and passing.
The Billikens go on a three-game stretch now that will test what type of team they are, and all but solidify their place in the A-10. On the road at Richmond and Davidson, and at home against #10 in the NET Dayton. The last couple of weeks haven’t been encouraging for the Bills, but what is clear about this team is that they have the defense to keep them in any game they play and that they have no problem getting up and competing with teams in big games.
Things appear to be getting better for the boys from midtown, now they get the opportunity to prove it.