By Carter Chapley
St. Louis, MO
This is not a weather forecast, and regardless of how the actual precipitation hits St Louis, a blizzard will hit the jewel of midtown Friday night. SLU Men’s basketball team hosts the Dayton Flyers in their annual Billiken Blizzard White Out game. The #13 team in the nation comes to Chaifetz as not only the foremost team in the conference but arguably the Atlantic 10’s top team in recent history.
The Flyers are the best team the Billikens will face this season. End of story. Seton Hall and Auburn are in close competition, but with the way Dayton is playing it’s hard to argue that there is a better team in the nation, let alone on the Billikens schedule.
Dayton is extremely solid on both ends of the floor. They have the best offense in the nation ranking at #1 in the KenPom’s offensive efficiency, and they are a ‘very pedestrian’ #38 on defense. The bench runs about 9 players deep so the Flyers can come at you with waves. But where they truly excel is with one man.
Obi Toppin is quite simply the best college basketball player in the country. He does it all. He’s unbelievably athletic and mobile for a center. He can shoot the ball from anywhere including 3, has handles, is a game changer on defense, and his awareness as a passer ranks with some of the best point guards around. I’m told there will be at least 13 NBA scouts in the crowd for the game, and they are all there to see him.
The redshirt sophomore will be one of the oldest players taken in the draft, but that will not stop him from going as high as the 4th pick like some experts are saying. Obi is generational talent for the A10 and is leading his Flyers into the promised land of national respect.
It would be one thing if Dayton was solely riding on the shoulders of one man, but what makes the Flyers a truly great team is their depth of star players. Ryan Mikesell, Jalen Crutcher, Rodney Chatman, and Trey Landers are all legitimate stars in the league and even on hypothetical nights where Toppin was not playing, that core could win the A-10.
As a team the Flyers are more mature. The players who make up that 9-man rotation are all red shirt sophomores, juniors, seniors, or graduate students. There is only 1 player in that primary group that is in their first or second college season. They are a veteran team who has gelled together and are now dominating. They are a cohesive unit.
The Billikens are facing a giant, a juggernaut per se. They have lost just two games this season, both of which were to ranked teams and both were losses in overtime. The Bills, however, are in a unique situation where they may be able to give the Flyers a run for their money. They are oddly well suited to matchup with Dayton.
SLU’s size and physicality allow the Bills to play closer to the Flyers and challenge them in ways others have not. Saint Louis is not the tallest or lankiest team around, but its key players are linebackers who can challenge anyone. And when they are at their best, even their lesser built players display grittiness and physicality that make them tough to matchup with. Toughness is key attribute of Travis Ford teams and they will need all of that to compete.
Almost a year ago in Brooklyn the Billikens topped the Flyers in the quarterfinals on route to an unlikely A-10 Championship. In that run, and in that game specifically, it was a very particular defensive set, the 1-3-1 zone defense, that allowed the Billikens to overcome opponents and overwhelm them on that end. It’s easy to forgive Billiken fans for coming to love that defense after it worked so flawlessly for them in beating arguably better teams. That same system hasn’t worked exactly the way they wanted it to so far this season but has shown flashes of brilliance. It would be easy to make the assumption that they will try to employ the same defense now to get similar results. That simply won’t be the case. Both teams are far different than they were last March, and most notably the breakout of Obi Toppin has changed the way you have to guard this team. The 1-3-1 will be particularly vulnerable as the Flyers will all to easily throw the ball over the top to Toppin who will be able to take advantage of the smaller guy who plays in the low post in that defense. The Bills will have to be more creative than that.
The one major advantage the Billikens will have coming into this game in addition to their athleticism and physicality is their rebounding. If you were to say the Flyers had a flaw it would be their ability to get rebounds. If the Billikens can use their skills as a.) offensive rebounders to create more possessions for themselves, and b) defensive rebounders to limit Dayton’s opportunities, they may be able to control the game and keep themselves in it.
SLU is in for its greatest challenge yet. A conference game against a team that could, very reasonably, end up in the Final 4 this year. A game that could, if you win, put you in position to be an at large bid candidate in the NCAA.
The Billikens have played other highly touted teams and proved they can battle with the best. They have rose to the challenge. They were embarrassed by Seton Hall at home but bounced back to win important games against teams like Auburn, and to a lesser extent Belmont and K-State. Can they win this game against Dayton? Yes. Will it take everything they have to do so? Yes.