By Carter Chapley
St. Louis, MO
It’s hard to know that if when the Seton Hall home-and-home was scheduled two years ago, the organizers at both schools had even the slightest inkling as to the gravity this game could hold. Obviously, a matchup with a well-known Big East opponent is a nice game to have every year in the non-conference regardless of who they are. But Sunday’s matchup is more than just a nice game on the schedule.
Sunday’s matchup against #12 Seton Hall is a measuring stick game for the Bills. Hypothetically the best team Travis Ford’s team will face this season comes to Chaifetz Arena for just the fourth game of the season. And, regardless of the outcome or the path to that outcome, we will collectively learn something about the 2019-2020 Billikens.
The general belief of the 2019-2020 Billikens is that they’re team littered with talent, but lacking experience. Translating those factors into wins hasn’t been a problem for the Bills so far, but they haven’t played any team of a caliber that can truly test them. The potential of this Billikens team will be on full display; is this a team that can compete and beat one of the top teams in the country? Or, are they still a tier below who has some growing up to do before they’re ready to run with the big boys.
The national answer to this question will come solely from a victory. A moral victory in November won’t make SportsCenter, and it won’t necessarily move the needle for those who aren’t paying very close attention. But for the Billiken faithful, realistically, a strong performance is all you can hope for. A win is gravy. That moral victory is a promise of this team’s ability to compete, despite its youth. A win would be the proof of that promise, proof that is coming shockingly early in the process.
Myles Powell leads the Pirates and has already earned respect as one of the best players in the country. Despite going down with an ankle injury just a week ago that was described initially needing a “prolonged absence”, Powell returned to the floor for the very next game when they hosted #3 Michigan State.
The junior guard did not just return, he shined. Dropping 37 points in the 3-point loss, Myles proved why he was named a preseason All-American and garnered National Player of the Year buzz. Legendary Michigan State Head Coach Tom Izzo said Powell was “one of the great players I’ve ever seen in college basketball.”
Powell is a game-changer; he can elevate and shoot from anywhere on the floor. In the Michigan State game, all of Powell’s threes came from well behind the three-point arc. Seton Hall tends to run the majority of their offense through the guard, he takes over in late clock situations and is the one they force the ball too when things get stale or slow. If the Billikens want any chance of taking down the Hall, they will have to find ways to make Myles Powell uncomfortable.
Seton Hall also returns 4 starters to its roster, including Powell, in addition to the experience and synergy that kind of retention creates, the group forms one of the tallest teams in the NCAA.
This is the first time this season the Billikens will face an opponent who they will not significantly outsize. In the previous three games of the season, the Bills were able to physically pressure and essentially bully teams in the paint. That option will not be available to them tonight. The Pirates feature a quartet of true big men who will make it difficult for the Billikens. Centers Romero Gill and Ike Obiagu stand at a listed 7’2” with forwards Tyrese Samuel and Sandro Mamukelashvili joining them standing at 6’10”.
Despite this, the Billikens feel they have the advantage in rebounding with the likes of Hasahn French and Jordan Goodwin being so dominant despite being undersized. The true challenge the size poses is the ability to move freely inside the arch, both off the dribble and in passing lanes.
While Samuel and Obiagu (a Florida State transfer) are new to the program, Saint Louis is familiar with Gil and Mamukelashvili along with the rest of the Seton Hall returners. SLU beat Seton Hall last season in New Jersey in the first leg of the home and home series. Winning 66-64, the Bills (Javon Bess) were able to limit Myles Powell to just 16 points,
A strong defensive performance is the best/ most likely way the Billikens will be able to remain competitive in the game. Even with Travis Ford’s group having scored 80+ in all three games this season, we may be in for a more classic Billiken performance in terms of limiting defense and slowing down the offense to limit overall scoring.
Despite a potent offense, Seton Hall has shown a bit of a weakness in the turnover game. Something the Billiken D is designed to create and take advantage of. That being said, the Billiken defense this season has often been at its weakest when it’s at its most aggressive. Players overcommit on the hedge or the reach for a steal and find themselves out of position, leading to an easy basket. Often times a three. The Pirates offensive depth is not the greatest (more on that in a moment), but they can hit open threes when handed to them. Limiting easy opportunities of any kind is important in any game, but it vital in a game where you are already facing the odds.
If the Billikens can play a more responsible brand of defensive basketball, and allow the turnovers to come more naturally, to protect the three-point line, that may be enough to stymie the high-powered Pirates offense.
Myles Powell is no doubt one of the best scorers in the country, the rest of the lineup is relatively pedestrian in terms of offensive capabilities. Part of that is the extreme focus on Powell’s ability and the desire to get the ball into his hands. In the Michigan State game, only fellow junior guard Myles Cale had a double-digit points night in addition to Powell’s. If the Billikens are able to force the ball out of Powell’s hands, they will have an excellent shot.
The Billikens will need to play their best game as a team to defeat the Pirates. The game is winnable, but anything short of an excellent night makes success unlikely. Things like extremely poor free-throw shooting (like has become a custom at Chaifetz Arena), or extended runs of poor three-point shooting will not be tolerable if the Bills want to become the next in a line of upsets.