It was a disappointing Selection Sunday for the Saint Louis University Men’s Basketball Program. The Billikens were hoping to find a way in the NCAA March Madness tournament after a season full of let downs and disappointments largely due to COVID-19 related troubles but were ultimately left on the outside looking in. Now, they find themselves as a 1-seed in the NIT tournament, the NCAA’s little brother of sorts.
Historically the Billikens have thrived in the NIT ever since its inception. Having made the final four times in school history and winning the inaugural playing of the event in 1948, SLU has appeared 18 times in the tournament. At one point, the NIT was the premier college basketball post-season event, but it was relegated to second-tier status over time.
Typically, games in the NIT are played on the higher-seeded team’s campus, with the semi-finals and finals being played in New York City’s Madison Square Garden; however, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, all games are being played in Frisco, Texas, a suburb of Dallas. The field has also been shrunk from its standard 32 teams to a 16-team field to accommodate the event’s hub nature.
While it is still possible for the Billikens to play in the NCAA tournament, it is unlikely. Having been named one of the four replacement teams in the field should any other teams have to withdraw due to Covid. The Billikens will wait until Tuesday to be certain of where they are playing. However, it is unlikely such a series of unfortunate events were to happen due to being named the third replacement team.
Travis Ford told Stu Durando of the St. Louis Post Dispatch as much Sunday night.
Travis Ford said he won’t spend any time thinking about the possibility of being an alternate for the NCAA Tournament because he believes the recent scenarios with Virginia and Kansas having positive COVID tests and being in the field indicates everyone will be able play.
— stu durando (@studurando) March 15, 2021
Saint Louis is one of four teams from the Atlantic 10 to make the NIT this season, leading Richmond, Dayton, and Davidson into the event. The A-10 also saw St. Bonaventure and VCU make the NCAA tournament.
In the first round, to be played Saturday at 4 pm central time, the Billikens will be tipping off against the Mississippi State Bulldogs, head coached by Ben Howland, who went 15-14 in the SEC this season. The Dogs have notable wins over the Mizzou Tigers and Florida Gators, both NCAA tournament teams and ended the season as the 77th best team, according to Ken Pom.
Led by a pair of sophomore guards in Iverson Molinar and DJ Stewart, Mississippi State has become known this season for their excellent guard play in addition to their physical and aggressive style in play. This should match up well with Travis Ford’s Billikens, who have been accused of playing “Bully Ball” based on their own preference to lead with their strength.
The Billikens return to the NIT any other year, would offer at the very least some financial benefit to the program, where because of the higher seeds getting to host the game, the athletic department gets a significant cut of the gate for hosting as many as three games. The Atlantic 10 as a conference also gets a cash payout to be distributed to its member programs because of Saint Louis and its three other teams’ entrances into the tournament.
However, because the event will be held in a single hub in Texas, it’s hard to gauge just how financially beneficial the tournament will be for the Billikens. They will get the opportunity to play on ESPN’s flagship station but will be going directly up against the Big Dance (on Turner and CBS), significantly diminishing that opportunity.
Ultimately, participation in the event comes down to two factors. One is to give the seniors one more shot at redemption after losing the A10 tournament semi-finals in an embarrassing fashion. An opportunity to add to Jordan Goodwin and Hasahn French’s legacy by winning one more tournament and padding their career statistics.
Jordan Goodwin will be able to become SLU’s first 1500pts/1000rebs/400ast player should he score enough in the NIT. Needs 54/8/2 to reach that benchmark.
Would make him 9th,4th,& 5th in each respectively. He’s also 1st in steals.
All while not cracking top 10 games played.
— Carter Chapley (@ChapleyMedia) March 14, 2021
The other is an opportunity to give a post-season experience to the next generation of players in the Billiken pipeline. Sophomores (and second-year players) like Yuri Collins, Gibson Jimerson, Javonte Perkins, and Terrence Hargrove, have never had a true post-season experience after being robbed of that last March, and they are expected to continue the success at SLU in the immediate future. The expectation of the program is the be at the very least in this spot every season, with the goal of the tournament within their grasp. Playing these games helps prepare the younger players for success down the road.
Having a deep March run could be a valuable experience to the success of next year’s team. There are signs of NIT success leading to future program appearances in the NIT. The Texas Longhorns, 2019’s NIT champion, won their first Big 12 title this season and is a 3 seed in the 2021 NCAA Tournament. The 2017 Champion TCU was a 6 seed in the following year’s NCAA tournament, and the 2013 Champion Baylor a 6 seed in the 2014 Tournament.
It has been a frustrating season for SLU. Covid issues really eliminated what could have been a banner year for the team in Midtown, instead, the Saint Louis faithful will have to settle for a consolation prize of sorts. But any opportunity is better than none. The Billikens have a chance to win something this March, for only the second time in seven years and the sixth time since their last NIT appearance 17 years ago.
Win the consolation prize; it sure beats staying at home this time of year.