By Carter Chapley
St. Louis, MO
For the last time this year, I can repeat the fact that Billiken basketball season is here. This is the third “official start” I’ve proclaimed, the first being Billiken Madness, the second being the exhibition game last week against Kentucky Wesleyan, but this is the first time that the games count.
There will be plenty of pre-game celebration, with a banner going up and rings being distributed for the A-10 champion Bills and their NCAA tournament appearance. But after all the fanfare, there will, of course, be a basketball game to kick off the 2019-2020 Billikens basketball regular season. On the other side of the court will stand the Florida Gulf Coast University Eagles.
FGCU entered the national consciousness in 2013 when the Eagles made one of the most storied Cinderella runs in the NCAA tournament ever. The 15-seed upset Georgetown and San Diego St en route to a sweet sixteen appearance in the school’s first-ever Division One National Championship appearance. Along the way, the Eagles were dubbed “Dunk City” and “Florida Dunk Coast” for their athletic and high-flying style of play.
A lot has changed at Florida Gulf Coast since that magical run. But one man has stayed steadfast and loyal to the Eagles. Head Coach Michael Fry.
Fry is a lifer at FGCU. Starting as a video coordinator in 2008, then being promoted to assistant coach in 2011, where he had stayed until last season when he was promoted to head coach. Florida Gulf Coast is the only program Fry has ever been a part of, taking on the video coordinator role when he was just 25.
The Head Coach is the only remaining member of the Eagles program from that magical run. So, the specifics of that team matter very little to the matchup Tuesday night. But it’s impossible to talk about the FGCU without referencing that team.
In Mark Fry’s first season leading the program, the team struggled. Lacking a core star or leading man on the roster, the Eagles failed to win 20 games for the first time in 6 seasons, falling to a 14-18 record total and a 9-7 in the Atlantic Sun, good enough for third in the conference.
The general consensus for the Eagles is a middling year. FGCU was projected to finish third in both the Atlantic Sun coaches and media polls, and CBS Sports has them ranked as the 248th best team in the country.
The 2019-2020 Eagles are, in many ways, similar to the Billikens this season. While the Billikens undoubtedly have a deeper roster and more high-end talent, both SLU and FGCU are adding a significant number of new players to their program, with FGCU adding five new recruits, three freshmen and two transfer guards. And much like the Billikens, the Eagles may not be receiving an accurate projection due to just how new their roster could be. Despite Michel Fry’s team losing two of its starters, there is still a foundation to be supplemented with the relatively strong recruiting class.
Last season, Dunk City relied on the exact opposite style of play than its name suggests. The high volume three-point shooting roster led to a sort of feast or famine mentality in terms of scoring for the Eagles. Averaging 8.4 makes on just over 22 attempts per game, making FGCU pesky in terms of their ability to stick around in games.
The things the Eagles struggled most at last season was rebounding and limiting turnovers. Two things the Billikens punish opposing teams for. One of the two transfers the Eagles have added is JUCO forward Justus Rainwater, which may help FGCU on the boards. The other is another JUCO star in point guard Jalen Warren, a sure-handed guard who will be expected to lead/initiate a fair share of the offense.
The matchup on opening night is, in many ways, somewhat similar to the exhibition game against Kentucky Wesleyan. The Billikens will outmatch the Eagles physically, athletically, and in-depth. But if the Billikens are unable to shoot effectively, and the Eagles can find their form from deep, the Billikens could be in for a scare. It is improbable the Bills will be as weak from the perimeter as they were last Wednesday night, but the margin for failure is far smaller as FGCU is far more talented and prepared for this sort of matchup.
Two things Billikens Head Coach Travis Ford has indicated to keep an eye out for as a sign of success for his team is being patient on the offensive end, and how well the press does in wearing down opponents late in games.
The Billikens intend to press on defense for forty minutes and run in transition at every possible opportunity. But when that fails, SLU will rely on Jordan Goodwin and to a lesser extent, Yuri Collins, Tay Weaver and Demarius Jacobs to execute an efficient half-court offense. Part of that is knowing when to slow down. If the Billikens force opposing offenses into extended possessions, using 25-30 seconds on the shot clock, then race up for a quick, but poor-quality shot, they will spend the entire game in their own end and allow opponents to find their flow.
Travis Ford has indicated a significant marker of the success of his offense will be displaying an understanding of when and when not to use the up-tempo pacing.
In the later of the two keys, this is the first opportunity to see just how exhausting the Billikens press. The Kentucky Wesleyan game is hard to use as a gauge of success as it’s entirely possible the Saint Louis talent simply outclassed a Division 2 program. But based on the words of Travis Ford, he sees a trend.
Very little is known about the Loyola-Chicago scrimmage beyond some baseline facts. The Billikens won by 7, Hasahn French lead the Bills in minutes, and a report I cannot confirm says the Billikens were down 10 at the half. Travis Ford indicated in the post-game press conference that he felt in both exhibition matches, the Billiken press was responsible for wearing down opposing teams and allowing their depth of fresh talent to take over the game.
The Billikens stare down a formidable non-conference schedule in November. How they fare in the early part of the out-of-conference play may ultimately come to define the season as a whole. Is this a team of young depth talent who can arguably compete in a highly competitive conference? Or are they a team with a lot of growing pains that have a bright future, but aren’t ready this year?
Time will tell, but for right now, Dunk City visits the Lou, and Billiken basketball is finally back in Midtown.