By Carter Chapley
St. Louis, MO
When the Billikens woke up Monday morning after their heartbreaking loss to Dayton just two nights earlier, they found themselves in the devastating position of being…a prospective NCAA Tournament team.
Well at least some in the national media feel that way. CBS’s bracketology report had the Bills as one of the teams playing in the first round, or more colloquially known as “The First Four”. The Billikens loss to Dayton Friday night was not a terminal diagnosis by any means. In fact, it is likely the exact opposite, as those watching and truly paying attention see it for what it is, a heartbreaking loss but an encouraging performance.
The Billikens are in a position to defy expectations and become a tournament team for the second season in a row. All things considered they are ahead of schedule in terms of team development. So, the program (and by proxy the fans) must decide what they want out of this team. Is development ok and this season is already a success? Or, is this a team looking to take the next step and start its ascent to greatness early. It will be easy in hindsight to adjust expectations but as of right now the way point needs to be set.
The company line all along has been that the coaching staff believes that this is a “good basketball team” and that their only goal is to “get better every day”. But I am hard pressed to believe that this team hasn’t internally changed their outlook. The players believe they are a tournament team, and their expectations for themselves is to win big games.
If the program believes itself to be a tournament caliber team, which I believe they feel they are, then they have to start this next stretch of games strong and begin to create some separation from themselves and the rest of the conference both in the standings and on the pulpit of narratives and conversations. They have the prime opportunity to start that stretch hot when they travel to Davidson Wednesday night.
SLU plays a string of 5 games against opponents they are ‘supposed’ to beat before they head back into the lion’s den to take on Dayton in Ohio. If they want to be the team that they feel they are, they need to be a convincing 5-0. That includes Davidson, who, at the outset of the 2019-2020 schedule were viewed far more positively than they are now. The Wildcats were picked to finish second in the league in the offseason and have since quickly fell of the map and sit at a very underwhelming 8-9 on the season.
What has happened in North Carolina is nothing short of a collapse. The Wildcats returned the greatest guard tandem of the 2018-2019 A-10 season in Kellan Grady and reigning A-10 Player of the Year Jon Axel Gudmundsson. But this is where the problems begin for Bob McKillop’s team. These two players are still incredibly talented, but the skill and general athleticism drops off significantly from there. Unlike the Billikens, who came in with two incredibly talented leaders on the roster and then were also supplemented by a myriad of solid depth pieces and developing new players, the Wildcats simply have not had those auxiliary players step up to fill the void.
Freshman forward Hyunjung Lee has been the most significant add to the team but is not nearly enough to make up for the disappointing starts from the likes of point guard Carter Collins, and forward Luka Brajkovic. It would also be irresponsible to not include that the Wildcats are still struggling from the loss of sophomore Luke Frampton who left the program for personal reasons and last year hit 96 three pointers.
The Wildcats are a matchup dream for the Billikens as their biggest flaws as a group is their general athleticism and their subpar interior defense. Davidson simply does not have the guys, or alternatively haven’t proved thus far to have the guys to matchup effectively with the Billikens strength in the paint and how physically gifted they are. Luka Brajkovic is the Wildcats key interior defender and beyond that there isn’t another guy. Hasahn French, Jimmy Bell Jr, and Jordan Goodwin are all simply bigger, stronger, and more talented than the equivalent three players in red when it comes to play in the paint.
This is why it is vital the Billikens come out and take care of business against Davidson. Coming off the loss to Dayton, Saint Louis needs to start to put together it’s resume and that includes dominating wins. The Bills head into Davidson with a team waiting whose greatest weaknesses are directly correlative to the Billikens strengths. Travis Ford’s team has proven they are perfectly capable of getting up for big game against high end opponents. Now is the time to prove they can dominate teams below them and start to gain some notoriety for themselves.
That all being said, Davidson does have one significant positive skill that can keep them hanging in the game. They can shoot the three, and they really love to shoot it. The Wildcats have guys who can get extremely hot from three: Jon Axel Gudmundsson and Kellen Grady are both excellent shooters and Lee has been better than expected from behind the arc. As a team Davidson puts up a ton of three-point shots, 45.8% of all shots taken are from behind the arc. A lot of this has to do with their weak interior play forcing themselves to pull the ball outside, but regardless, they are more than willing to put up a barrage of shots. If they get hot enough, all bets are off in a conference game like this one.
Saint Louis has the door open to shape their narrative going forward. They are beginning to gain respect in the national media and have a favorable schedule going forward. Getting a statement win against a still notable Davidson program would be a statement win no matter how poor the Wildcats have played thus far.
The Bills have every opportunity to get themselves into the tournament, but the margin for error is thin. A win gets them off on the right foot, whereas a loss would be devastating.