By Carter Chapley
St. Louis, MO
The Billikens have played an undoubtedly successful first two months of basketball. Despite not getting wins against either of their two ranked opponents, they showed they could hang with Auburn, beat all the teams they are supposed to beat, and mixed in some very quality wins.
At some point, the context surrounding this team went from one where the goal was to develop and grow into one where this team could compete for a place in the NCAA tournament. And, at the very least, be a very competitive NIT team. While the internal line has remained consistent about the team’s goal, with Travis Ford stating on Friday that the goal of “getting better every day” has never changed and has been the only goal the team has ever had, it’s hard to fault fans and critics alike from speculating or even dreaming about March.
SLU is a ways away from March glory, and with a gauntlet of A-10 teams to come in the new year, the road is a long one. As it stands today, they would need to run the table at the A-10 tournament again to find themselves playing in an NCAA tournament game. But you cannot ignore the success this team has found through 12 games. Part of the reason the conversation has shifted, if even ever so slightly, is because the Billikens have taken care of its business when teams like Bethune-Cookman come to campus.
Even given the youth of the team, the Bills have yet to slip up and have that signature let-down game that so many SLU fans have almost come to expect as a yearly tradition. They have been able to grow, learn, and develop all while being able to find ways to win. They certainly haven’t been perfect and could have had more cushioned wins against some opponents, but learning to win is a skill, and they have shown they know just how to do that.
The Bills have exceeded expectations thus far, but need to close out the year and put a seal on the non-conference schedule by taking care of a team who could quite possibly be a squad that does play in March Madness. Otherwise, all that built up momentum will be for not.
Bethune-Cookman, traveling to St. Louis from Daytona Beach, Florida, is one of the most unique programs in the NCAA this season. Despite their 6-7 record thus far, with three of those wins being against non-D1 opponents, the Wildcats are expected to be the class of the MEAC and are one of KenPom’s candidates for a likely undefeated conference schedule. They received the most first-place votes in the conference’s preseason poll, with Senior guard Cletrell Pope being named first-team MEAC and Pre-season Player of the Year, with his teammate Malik Maitland joining him on that first team.
The catch to all this is that the MEAC is likely the worst conference in college basketball this season, ranking a distant last (32nd) in KenPom’s conference power ranking. It makes for a fascinating combination of factors when considering the matchup in midtown.
The decorated Cletrell Pope leads Bethune-Cookman from the Center position. He will challenge the Billikens on the boards as he ranks 9th in the nation in rebounds per game, just one spot and .2 boards a game above SLU’s Jordan Goodwin at 11.2 per game. That said, the Billikens should have an easier time rebounding compared to K-State as Pope is the only notable rebounder for the Wildcats. The Billikens collective skill
The matchup between Pope and either Jimmy Bell Jr or Hasahn French will be the one to watch. While on paper Pope and French are similar, standing about the same height and playing the same position as undersized 4’s/5’s, the way they do things are incredibly different. Where Hasahn wants to dominate physically, Pope wants to use his quickness and extended range to beat defenders and get to the hoop for rebounds. Cletrell moves very well on the floor and can dominate less mobile big men that way. Though Pope has had rough nights when taking on teams with front-court depth, and just like Hasahn French, Jimmy Bell can similarly try to impose his physicality and try to insert himself that way. The tag team may be too much for Pope to handle. Alternatively, Bell may not be up to the same defensive test when challenged to be a more mobile defender, and Pope may be forced to be guarded by Hasahn.
However, if Jimmy can hold or limit Pope, there is no other player who can size up with Hasahn as Pope is the defacto and sole big guy on the team. Alternatively, Jimmy Bell may be in for a big night as he will clearly be the tallest guy on the floor and will very quickly able to draw noticeable mismatches down low. Essentially, the Billikens front-court depth gives them a significant advantage as Bethune-Cookman can not match-up.
Despite the Wildcats coming from a weak conference and having a subpar record, the Billikens cannot afford to take a break or allow a letdown this close to the calendar year’s end. Bethune-Cookman is not menacing physically or from a talent depth perspective. Still, they have already faced and scared fierce competition earlier in the season, most notability, losing to Georgia Tech by just 3 points in Atlanta and by 5 to UCF in Orlando. They have gone on the road against teams relatively similarly ranked to SLU and hung tough.
Regardless of the prestige of Bethune-Cookman, they are still a division one team and will come out trying to challenge the Bills with everything they have. By all metrics, SLU should be able to put this win away quickly, and painlessly but nothing to this point has been truly ‘easy’ for these Billikens. It will be incredibly crucial that the Billikens show up to Chaifetz Arena Sunday night mentally prepared and start on time. They have the chance to put a seal on an excellent non-conference schedule, where they only lost twice.
The last two times the Billikens were able to get out of Non-Conference with just a pair of losses, they ended up Dancing in March.