By Carter Chapley
St. Louis, MO
The Bills continue to win ugly but win nonetheless. Which is concerning in the grand scheme of things but passable in the immediate situation. Any loss to an A-10 team is devastating for the Billikens at this point (save for a few exceptions), but ultimately getting into the win column will be far more lasting than the potential of a road scare. Winning cures a lot of things in sports, this is no exception.
Conference matchups are a different kind of beast. Day in and day out ‘lower end’ teams put scares into the high end or mid-pack teams. On any given night anyone can win in this conference. Now the Billikens have loftier goals than to be an ‘ok’ A-10 team who ‘can’ beat anyone. But the number of wins in the win column is essential, and at the end of the year, that number will be more vital than a close win in January.
Saint Louis is looking to escape Philadelphia unscathed and leave with two wins and momentum before they come back to Chaifetz Arena. Despite a disappointing loss at Davidson, the Bills are still receiving votes of confidence from national bracket projectors. They need to continue to win games against their lesser opponents if they want to keep it that way. They’ve got some momentum back with back-to-back wins, but they have yet to have that signature performance they need to solidify trust in their ability. There is no better time than now to do so.
Last season the St. Joseph’s Hawks used divine intervention to beat the Billikens when they visited Philadelphia. Shooting 55% from the field and 43% from beyond the arc, the Hawks used the emotional loss of their former head coach’s father’s passing to push through SLU and lock up a 30-point win. Simply put, they couldn’t miss. They made open shots, they made guarded shots, they made circus shots.
The other aspect of that game, and the significant change in what we will see later today. Is that the St. Joe’s roster has turned over, and they simply do not have the talent they once did. Losing their top four scorers, their roster has been left barren and has been a team made up of far more questions than answers. For example, Charlie Brown Jr, their top scorer a year ago, made the jump to the NBA, splitting time between the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks and their G-league affiliate the College Park Skyhawks. Their current top scorer, Delaware Transfer Ryan Daly, is simply not a replacement for that, and their top returner, Taylor Funk, has missed the last 14 games with a hand injury.
The Hawks are a team in trouble this season, and things are not going to be easy for Head Coach Billy Lange to turn around. The team is 4-17, with blowout losses up and down their schedule. There is very little positive to talk about with this team. But they do have a clear identity in how they want to play basketball. They are going to shoot the three, whether its working or not.
Billy Lange’s group shoots the three on 49.3% of their possessions. Only Quinnipiac, Rice, and North Florida shoot it more often. They are fourth in the nation in terms of volume of threes taken, and they are 302nd in terms of made percentage. They are not particularly good at shooting the three, and yet they continue to hoist up shoots like at a firing range. Part of that statistic may be inflated due to sheer volume, but it is nonetheless hard to understand the mentality. Undoubtedly a coach as well respected as Lange, who spent 7 years as an assistant with the 76ers and has 13 years of D1 coaching experience, can create a more efficient offense. Right?
But the problems do not stop there. Defensively SJU ranks 312th in KenPom’s defensive efficiency rankings and is one of the worst teams in the nation in guarding 2-point shots. They are 11th last in steals, 2nd last in forced turnovers. All things considered, SLU should have nothing to worry about in terms of penetrating this defense as they have shown up to this point that they can’t take the ball away from anyone who tries, nor can they stop them from shooting it.
Saint Joseph’s is the defacto worst team in the conference this year. They are a program in transition with the 52nd youngest team in the NCAA. The big concern is that, for example, SLU has the 56th most inexperienced team and has outperformed that barrier in no small degree. George Washington, who ranks 61st in that same experience, stat at least looks like a team on the rise with some promising young talent. SJU does not appear to be trending upwards.
With all of that said, Saint Joseph’s has beaten UConn, Bradley, William & Mary, and Penn. When you take 31 threes a game, some nights, you get hot. In those wins, they have averaged 10.5 makes a game, compared to their average 8.
There is no logical rhyme or reason why the Billikens should struggle tonight. They are more talented, going against a team whose weakness matches their strength. Even in the case of the Hawks getting hot, they can reasonably survive that kind of streak given the reality of the statistics.
But SLU has given no evidence for why they will not struggle against weaker teams. In every opportunity, the Billikens have ether allowed teams to keep it close, or not played their best to snuff out an opponent early. Many things go into that. Bad three-point shooting, bad free-throw shooting, a slower-paced offense, and a strong defense that limits total possessions in a game keeping overall scoring low.
For their own sake, the Bills need to show they can put these types of teams away. Part of the development of a young team is growing and too many times this year have they allowed subpar teams to stick around with them. It’s time to show they are learning from the past, making changes, and adapting in one way or another.
They have the ability, now it’s time to execute.