By Carter Chapley
St. Louis, MO
The Billikens continue their early-season homestand welcoming the Valparaiso Crusaders into Chaifetz Arena Saturday evening. The second game in the six-game homestand to open the season features an opponent that brings back virtually all of its players from last year. It is looking to build on a subpar season in the Missouri Valley Conference.
The Crusaders, led by Head Coach Matt Lottich in his third season as bench boss, played to a 15-18 record last season overall, including a 7-11 MVC record. Since entering “The Valley,” Valpo has struggled to gain traction and succeed, never placing above 9th in the conference regular-season standings in the 10-team league.
Valpo is again expected to finish the season in the bottom third of their conference, being selected 9th in the preseason poll. Though they have the potential to be a dangerous team that can surprise some people. The Crusaders are returning 7 players from last year’s roster and adding a JUCO transfer to round out the veteran lineup.
The most notable of those returners is Javon Freeman-Liberty, a sophomore who was named to the All-Rookie team and All-Defensive team in the MVC. The then freshmen also became the first freshmen in conference history to lead one of the five major statistical categories, leading the conference in steals. After starting in all 33 games last year, Valpo hopes the sophomore can make a big jump and be the breakout player the program needs.
In addition to the standout sophomore, Valpo expects significant production out of their 5th year senior Ryan Fazekas. In his third season on campus, Fazekas has to be a dominant feature of the offense for Valparaiso to see success. The RS Senior lead the team last season in three-point shooting, knocking down the long ball at a 43.2% clip.
What Valparaiso is expected to do to the Billikens is get out and shoot the ball. The SLU coaching staff has said on multiple occasions they are planning to see at least 30 three-point attempts throughout the game. The Crusaders will want to play fast and let it fly from deep.
The combination of a veteran core and a hot-shooting three-point team is often the perfect combination of factors that lead to an unlikely upset. Especially considering how poorly the Billikens defended the arc in the second half of their opening night match against FGCU.
The Crusaders won their opening-night matchup against Toledo earlier this week. Building off the stable shooting of Fazekas, who put up 23 points, including 4 three-pointers, the Crusaders were able to overcome a 14-point deficit to secure the opening night victory over the Toledo Rockets.
That being said, the Crusaders are more battled tested than most. Over the summer, Valparaiso took the opportunity afforded to them by the NCAA to travel to Canada to play a series of games against teams in USPORTS, the Canadian equivalent of the NCAA.
The Billikens had considered a similar trip this offseason but reportedly opted to delay the trip to next summer. Hoping to better acclimatize their young roster to the program before taking them on a significant excursion.
The trip north included four exhibition games against teams in two provinces, beating Concordia, McGill, and the University of Quebec. The truly impressive feat of the four-game trip was a tight, unexpected victory over the Carleton University Ravens.
Carleton may be familiar to Billiken fans as former Head Coach Rick Majerus once referred to them as the “Duke of Canadian Basketball.” The comment came before traveling with SLU to play the Ravens three times back in 2011. The comparison is almost an insult in hindsight as the Ravens have won 13 of the last 16 national championships, a feat of which Duke most certainly never accomplished.
Canadian Basketball history aside, the Carleton Ravens had won straight against NCAA D1 opponents before the crusaders ended their run.
The trip to Canada and their success indicates a team that is well-conditioned, experienced, and talented enough to beat good opponents. They have the advantage of additional continuity and practice time going into the 2019-2020 season.
Travis Ford will look to lead his team to a more complete game in their second appearance of the season. Despite a very successful opening night, beating Florida Gulf Coast 89-67, Travis Ford was disappointed with his team’s defensive result in the second half.
“Everything we didn’t do well in the second half, we did well in the first half. So, you’re still trying to figure out what happened…It may have become a bit of a mental thing for our team.” Travis Ford told the press at practice Tuesday afternoon, “Nothing I’m overly concerned about. Wasn’t happy about it, but I don’t think it’s a problem with our team.”
Early in the season, Ford and his staff are still focused on the bigger picture of developing the team. The 22-point win over FGCU is an excellent prize for the squad, but Travis wants to continue to see growth out of his team. “There was never that sense of urgency that we needed, and I’ve been telling our team that It’s about developing habits, good habits, and I didn’t think in the second half we developed that many good habits.”
One big question entering the Saturday afternoon matchup is whether or not this Billiken team is as offensively potent as they showed themselves to be last Tuesday. The Bills rolled, scoring 89 points, the most in the Travis Ford era at SLU, and while that pace almost certainly will not stand. The increased offensive prowess shows potential, especially considering what the Billikens were able to do last season with essentially no offensive to speak of.
Saint Louis got contributions from all over the court, with 6 Bills hitting threes making 11 in total. If SLU can prove themselves as an above-average shooting team, while also playing the signature Travis Ford defense, the Bills may find themselves in a far better position than anyone could have expected.
The Billikens tip-off with the Crusaders at 6 pm central with the first 750 students to come through the gates at Chaifetz Arena, receiving USA inspired Billiken T-Shirt. The game will be available on Fox Sports Midwest with Scoops’ own Dan McLaughlin on the call. In addition to the TV broadcast, the game can be streamed on Fox Sports Go and ESPN+. The radio call with John Rammer and Earl Austin will be available on 106.5 The Arch in St. Louis as there is a conflict with 101.1 ESPN.