By Carter Chapley
St. Louis, MO
A big week lies ahead in midtown for Team Blue. On Sunday, the Billikens welcome one of the best college basketball teams in the country to Chaifetz Arena. In a sense, luck has smiled on them in allowing Team Blue the opportunity to upset a ranked team potentially.
But before that, SLU has to take on Eastern Washington University Wednesday night.
The latter of the two games, Sunday against Seton Hall, is an easy game to get worked up for. A home contest and an early statement game have all the features of a classic Billiken battle. It makes the midweek game a potentially easy game to overlook. But as the great Roger Waters once said, “If you don’t eat your meat, you can’t have any pudding.”
The second Eagles team the Billikens play this season, comes to St. Louis with a 2-0 record. But to get the full perspective on that record, a more in-depth look is necessary.
Eastern Washington opened its season by dominating Portland Bible College, a member school of the NCCAA, the National Christian College Athletic Association, to the tune of a 107-25 score. The game is official and countable by the NCAA as a game. Still, PBC is widely considered “sub-D-3” in terms of its competitiveness. So, an 82-point win isn’t all that it seems. It’s second matchup of the year, its first against a division 1 opponent, saw EWU defeat Seattle University by a score of 74-66. Seattle is not considered to be a world-beater by any means, being picked third in the Westcoast Athletic Conference’s preseason poll. So the two wins against lesser teams than the Eagles distorts how impressive that 2-0 record may be.
On the flip side, it is not as if the Billikens opponents have been notable names to this point either. If you were to go simply by the KenPom rankings, Eastern Washington is the best team the Billikens have faced so far. But, their ranking also includes their win against Portland Bible College, so it’s hard to say how legitimate the analytics behind that are.
Regardless of how deep you want to cut into Eastern Washington’s previous opponents, Wednesday’s matchup has all the attributes of a trap game for the Billikens.
A weaker opponent, in the midweek, looking ahead to a major matchup with arguably the best team they will play all season, are all the classic symptoms of an early-season upset. It is imperative for the Billikens to play to their potential and put this game away like they realistically should.
What the Billikens can expect to face on the court is another steady barrage of three-point shooting. The Eagles have made a name for themselves in the last two years as a team who likes to get out and run, then finding the three in transition. In their game against Seattle, the Eagles took 31 threes, making just 6 of them. The Billikens have already displayed a weakness in defending the perimeter. They will have to show adjustments on that end to find success.
Jacob Davison leads Eastern Washington’s offense as its most versatile scorer, being a threat off the dribble and from the arc. The Junior and first-team All-Big Sky selection averaged 15.6 points per game in the Eagles run to the Big Sky tournament conference final last season. In the matchup against Seattle, Jacob scored 25 on 8-17 shooting, including three of the teams six threes. He also added 12 free throw attempts, of which he made 6.
The forward tandem of both sophomore Kim Aiken Jr, and senior Mason Peatling also pose an unusual threat in their diverse abilities as forwards. The redshirt sophomore’s ability to both play as a big man and shoot the three make him a difficult matchup. Aiken Jr. took 9 threes in their previous matchup while pulling down an eye-popping 19 rebounds. Peatling is a more defensive facing forward. While only standing at 6’8”, the Australian native is a natural rim protector, who leads the team in blocks since coming to EWU.
The Eagles typically (to this point) run their roster nine deep in in-game rotations, all of which can shoot the three. Every Billiken will have to be conscious of where their man is and limiting good looks from distance.
One thing the Billikens haven’t genuinely faced to this point is a team that can really run with them or wants to run with them for the entire game. They may have one here. The Eagles pride themselves in their desire to play in transition and force teams to guard them from a position of disorganization. A style of play that they quickly take advantage of by finding quick passes to players. The Billikens press will have a lot to handle if Eastern Washington is able to move as fluidly as they would like.
The Billikens will counter in trying to force the Eagles off the arch and into the paint as the Bills will have the physical advantage over EWU. Davison, Aiken, and Peatling are all capable from inside the arc, but it’s there the likes of Hasahn French, Jordan Goodwin, Fred Thatch, and company will be able to impose their will.
Despite the Billiken defense from the outside lacking in their win over Valparaiso, the thing Saint Louis did exceptionally well is follow its game plan and limit the total number of threes taken throughout the game. The Crusaders were also a team who would have liked to take as many as 30 three-point shots, but Travis Ford’s scheming effectively limited that number to just 17 and forced Valpo to play away from its strength. It will now be on the players to more effectively execute that plan and come away with a more convincing win.
The home match marks the first game in a series the Billikens will participate in as part of the Gotham Classic. A tournament of sorts that will primarily be hosted at SLU and Boston College. The tournament is played out in a “round-robin” style, where the Billikens will host EWU, High Point, and Belmont before heading to Boston College for the Showcase Game of the tournament.
Eastern Washington is a team that knows how to compete, despite being at a talent deficit compared to the Billikens. Their back-to-back appearances in the Big Sky Conference tournament final shows this team has resolve and can compete. The Billikens are expected to win and will open as 7.5-point favorites. But if they lose focus, and overlook the weaker of two opponents this week, disaster may strike at Chaifetz Arena.