By Carter Chapley
St. Louis, MO
After a disappointing conference season opener at Duquesne, the Billikens have the opportunity to return to their home building and get back to their winning ways, taking on the UMass Minutemen. While the Billikens are the favorite, and should walk away with a clear victory, they also now have to reprove themselves to their fans and the rest of the conference as a legitimate threat in the A-10.
The Billikens are not the first team to lose a bad game in college basketball this season and they won’t be the last. Even then, to call Duquesne a bad loss would be hyperbole. Duquesne is a good team, the only problem was that the margin for error in the Billikens quest for an at-large bid was extremely slim so an opening night loss to a team many (myself included) thought was overrated, hurt their outlook.
The Billikens will play their next two at home against opponents who are seen as far weaker than they are. SLU has yet to have a truly signature blowout win (or really dominant performance) this season and now is the perfect time for that kind of thing to take place. They need to show that the performance in Pittsburg was simply a flash in the pan and not who this team is. There is no better way than to swing the other way, put up a big number on a conference rival and get a statement win at home.
UMass is an up and coming team in the A-10 who are going through some growing pains. They have a handful of talented freshmen who lead their team but, unlike the Bills, don’t have that veteran presence to supplement that talent. Their roster is also very depleted as sophomore Sy Chatman has entered the transfer portal and is therefore unavailable, and TJ Weeks is still suffering from an abdominal injury.
With both those unavailable players, the Minutemen received some reinforcements as transfer sophomore forward Dibaji Walker was cleared to play by the NCAA and will be supplying some much needed “veteran” presence. Walker was cleared just prior to the last game the Minutemen played at Akron, where he got 17 minutes of game time. He’s had at the very least some time to mesh with the team in real game action.
The Minutemen had an incredibly successful offseason and has arguably one of the best recruiting class in the conference. They added Tre Mitchell, a versatile center who was ESPN’s #74 recruit in the nation for the 2019 class and arguably the top recruit for any team in the conference. They also added Sean East, a quick point guard who flew under the radar in recruiting but has broken out as an excellent young talent. Sean has been UMass’s version of Yuri Collins, notching 67 assists in their 13 games.
Both players could easily be contenders for A-10 rookie of the year. The two players lead their team in usage percentage and will have ample opportunities to stack up stats. On the other hand, the rest of the lineup simply doesn’t have enough depth or veteran presence to make a deep impact. This team is going to surprise people, they may even play spoiler late, but they aren’t strong enough a team to make a real impact in the conference beyond that.
While the Bills have the clear talent edge, a major problem the Bills have faced is an inability to separate themselves from weaker teams. They haven’t dropped a bad game yet, but they haven’t had a really big win either. Until they prove they can play to their own talent level and not their opponents, it is relevant to talk about the specifics of the Bills approach.
The Billikens are going to have to do some new things defensively to limit UMass. Sean East is as quick as a hiccup and will push to play at his own pace. In practice, it was clear that Travis Ford was aware of this as he had Yuri Collins and Tay Weaver working on finding and stopping the primary guard from getting out and running.
Tre Mitchell is the kind of big man that the Bills have not yet seen this season. He is a very mobile big man with excellent footwork and plus vision. He is more than capable of playing as both a back-to-the-basket center or face up and beat his man off the dribble. He can shoot the three effectively enough to be respected and can pass the ball well when pressured. There isn’t a whole lot the 6’9” center doesn’t do well all considering. It will be another test for someone like Jimmy Bell, who can prove themselves by effectively defending and attacking another very good big man. If he cannot, it will fall on Hasahn French to make those stops, which is less than ideal because Tre Mitchell has a knack for drawing fouls and the Billikens cannot afford to lose French for extended periods of time.
The Billikens will need to see an uptick in the things they do well: defense and rebounding. As well as a turnaround of the secondary things they hope to do, like shooting. As a team the Minutemen do not rebound well and allow a lot of second chance points, the bread and butter for the Bills. If SLU plays its game and takes advantage of its opportunities, they should be able to dominate.
Travis Ford, who head coached the UMass Minutemen for three seasons from 2005 to 2008, is currently sitting on 399 career wins as a division one head coach, 62 of which were earned in maroon. It would be quite something for him to get his 400th against an old program of his. He will have the opportunity today. You can catch the game’s 3 o’clock tip-off on NBCSN, or on the radio at 101.1 ESPN.