By Carter Chapley
St. Louis, MO
SLU finally got a real blowout win in the conference season, a breakthrough the team has been missing essentially all-season long, but now can boast their ability to dominate a lesser team.
The win over La Salle was a full team effort. Each piece played their part to perfection, and besides the extraordinarily high personal foul totals, there wasn’t a flaw to be found in the Billikens game. The past two performances, the competitive loss at Dayton and Saturdays win over La Salle, have been a refreshing change from the recent string of games where the Bills played tightly against weak opponents.
Travis Ford believes the positive strides come from finding their competitive spirit again and utilizing some off time to reset and refocus their efforts. SLU losing at home in an ugly fashion has appeared to be a wakeup call of sorts, and it has come at a fortunate time. With the season winding down, and still enough time to right the ship, the Billikens still very much have a chance to get themselves the double-bye in Brooklyn.
They don’t control their own destiny. But they can play their way into that position.
The grind towards that double bye rolls on to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts as the Billikens visit the Minutemen. UMass will be looking to protect their home court in addition to avenge the loss they suffered when visiting St. Louis earlier this season.
The Minutemen have been one of the genuine surprises of the A-10 this season. Their record of 4-8 is impressive considering just how many freshmen they are relying on, but more so, it’s their consistent ability to stay in every game they play. Despite the talent gap they sometimes face. They have struggled at times this season, no doubt, but they are consistently a threat to play spoiler.
Tre Mitchell’s emergence as a leader on the court for UMass has been one of the most exciting storylines in the A-10 this season. Mitchell has been named conference rookie of the week three times this season and leads all rookies in scoring averaging 19.4 per game. He has especially hit his stride in conference play averaging 19.8 points per game with an addition 6.4 boards. Tre came into the season as the conferences marquee freshmen recruit and has lived up to expectations.
Fortunately for the Billikens, they too have a pair of big men to take on the freshmen center. Hashan French continues to be Hasahn French, averaging a double-double a night for the Billikens despite a consistently nagging hip. Jimmy Bell Jr. though, has started to shine through in spurts as a reliable center in the tandem. Bell has begun to look more confident on the block and assertive in all situations. He isn’t always as aggressive as his strength should allow him to be, but it’s clear he is starting to see what exactly he can do.
Jimmy Bell Jr. has also shown that he plays his best game when allowed to bang against other traditions centers or center types. His best games of the season have come against Dayton, Richmond, and La Salle. French has also had significant outcomes in those games because of his ability to leave the paint and use his elite athleticism and defensive skill in spots all over the floor, and not need to be anchored to the key as a shot-blocker/rim protector.
Bell didn’t have a great game in the first meeting against Mitchell and the Minutemen, who is arguably the best three-point shooting center in the league, but with some development and exposure now to a variety of players. It will be interesting to see if Jimmy can be an X-Factor in this game.
If it is not Bell, the Billikens will need someone to step up and be “the guy” for the Bills. Road conference games are incredibly challenging to play in, no matter the opponent. Javonte Perkins has been the new star for the Bills, but to continue to have road success, they will need more. Yuri Collins will be challenged by another freshman guard in Sean East, so his contributions will be vital. And Tay Weaver showed a new “slashing” side to him last time out, his continued growth is also key to continuing to diversify this team’s offense.
SLU is favored by about four points heading into Tuesday night’s game. And while the line is reflective of what I agree it will be, a brawl, I can’t imagine comfortably predicting this game in any one way. The Bills own the talent advantage, but in the A-10 home court is king, and the Billikens will have to earn every inch they want.
Tip-off from Mullins Center will be 6pm central with the game being available on Fox Sports Midwest Plus despite being produced by NESN. A stream on ESPN+ will also be available. The radio broadcast will be carried on 106.5 FM The Arch. As always, Billiken Hall of Famers Bob Ramsey and Earl Austin Jr. will be on the call.