Saturday evening at Chaifetz Arena was a record-setting night. The Billikens set a Chaifetz Arena record for points scored in a half, putting up 65 points in the opening twenty minutes. They eventually scored 107 points, breaking the century mark for the first time since February 16th, 1995.
It’s easy to get confused as to why a game like this can or should be played. SLU was coming off of beating a well-regarded LSU team only to put a beat down on an unsuspecting Arkansas Pine-Bluff. You might be thinking, the Billikens are far too good to be playing teams who A.) do not really provide a challenge for them and B.) will ultimately provide nothing for them in terms of improving their March Madness resume. And you would be right.
This game’s reality comes from a willingness from one program to sacrifice playing an essentially meaningless game to get live reps for the team and the other side’s willingness to essentially be lambs to the slaughter for an opportunity to play at all.
The Billikens are having a challenging time scheduling games; everyone has. Very few teams in the Billikens tier of competitiveness are finding willing opposition for matchups behind one or maybe two games. The Billikens are in many ways lucky to have scheduled Minnesota and LSU, and while a game might come along, it will likely be the Billikens sacrificing something to play said game.
The new Covid related reality emerges. When no one really wants to travel for games (especially against an opponent as talented as SLU), how do you get game experience? Or do you just opt not to play at all until conference season? Clearly, the second option is not really an option, so you do anything you can to get as many games as possible.
That’s where Arkansas Pine-Bluff comes in. The Golden Lions have been historically one of the poorest teams in college basketball. From an endowment perspective and from a quality on the court perspective. It’s not really anyone’s fault; it’s already hard enough for HBCU’s to recruit, but when doing so in Pine-Bluff, Arkansas… it’s another level of difficulty. No one would travel to Pine-Bluff, and every year the Golden Lions fund their athletic department by traveling to higher-level schools, being paid for their services. Being paid to play in front of a hostile arena and far more often than not, losing, and losing big.
In that sense, very little has changed in 2020; they know who they are. Arkansas Pine-Bluff will play a murderer’s row of teams this season, likely the most challenging non-conference schedule in the country, not playing once in their home gym. But will do so to get games.
So, an agreement is essentially in place. Whether that’s on the record or not, it’s well known.
So what is SLU to do? Well, precisely what they did on Saturday, and what they will do on Tuesday against Central Arkansas (who is not in the same tier as UAPB but in a similar situation). The Billikens will use the opportunity to get live experiences and try out in-game solutions against new opponents and new faces.
Travis Ford explains it best. “We never want to try to embarrass anyone, but we want to get everyone an opportunity to play. And to play like we work on in practice”, the Head Coach said after their win Saturday evening. “We want everyone to play within the flow of the game…we want everyone to play hard because you have to create positive habits, and the only way to create those positive habits is to play the way you practice and to try and get better.”
At the very thought of embarrassing another team, Coach Ford seemed somewhat stunned. He clarifies all the changed measures his team took once the game was out of hand, such as no longer playing a full-court press in the second half of the game or making sure everyone played equal time throughout the roster. It’s clear there is a line that exists in Coaches mind between being professional and being disrespectful, and Travis went so far as to even say that he “hoped it wasn’t seen like it was anything like that”.
Jordan Goodwin echoed the sentiments in his post-game press conference. “We just practice so hard every single day against each other, and we don’t have many games. So, we just want to go out and force our will, and not get in any bad habits no matter what the score was. We wanted to just work on ourselves.”
The use of the time to create positive habits makes sense for this team or more so this program. While they are obviously incredibly talented at the top end of their roster and getting game reps to improve is certainly essential (Jordan Goodwin, for example, referenced the opportunity to take more three’s as a confidence builder as an important step) but the program as a whole always has an eye towards the future. There are players on this team who desperately need live competition. Freshmen like Markhi Strickland, Andre Lorentsson are the program’s long-term future, and they need development. Jimmy Bell Jr is behind schedule in terms of 2020 practice due to a foot injury and could use some polishing. Overall, the program needs to at the very least start to see what a world after Jordan Goodwin, Hasahn French, and Javonte Perkins looks like.
There are many ways these situations are valuable in building the long- and short-term health of Saint Louis basketball. The Billikens will play a few more games like this one before the A-10 starts its conference play. They may not be exactly like this one, but the message will be similar. Winning will be extremely likely, but performance…no matter the score, will be expected.