By Carter Chapley
St. Louis, MO
Technically speaking, the Billikens will play their second neutral-site matchup of the season Saturday afternoon. Coming off a dominating win in their first of such games in Arizona, the Billikens close their most extended road trip of the 2019-2020 out of conference schedule tipping off against the Auburn Tigers.
The reality of the situation is, the Billikens are driving down into Auburn home state, just two hours away from campus, playing against arguably one of the best teams in the country. Auburn is one of only five schools that remain unbeaten and sit at a lofty #12 in the nation by the AP poll.
The Bills faced another team ranked #12 earlier in the season when Seton Hall came to Chaifetz Arena, and that did not end well for SLU. Now, SLU looks to improve their performance having a better understanding of what it’s like to play a team of this caliber.
“Looking back, we’re battle-tested now. I feel like we’re ready now. We’ll be more focused and locked in.” Hasahn French said about the matchup after practice Wednesday “I feel like against Seton Hall we were fresh as a team, we had a ton of new guys. Guys who are fresh to NCAA tournament kinda teams. So we didn’t get that kinda atmosphere of playing different teams. That team coming in just showed us our first time playing against a high-level NCAA tournament team. I think we should execute and get way more looks that we didn’t get against Seton Hall.”
Hasahn later added, “We are way more experienced on the floor, I feel like that’s something we didn’t have against Seton Hall and this game we’ll have that.”
The big man is certainly right, they are more tested and mature. They have statement wins over NCAA bound and significant conference teams. They’ve have shown growth mentally and physically. But they certainly haven’t had a test like this since their lone loss.
The Seton Hall and Auburn matches are similar in many ways beyond just the #12 rankings. Yet, for all intents and purposes, the two types of games we can expect to see don’t really compare.
Seton Hall dominated SLU by using its size, length, and superstar to stymie the Billikens on both ends of the floor. The young Billikens squad was caught flat-footed by the veteran Pirates team. The youth of the Bills shown through as before they could find a solution on the floor, the leak became a flood, and the game was lost. And even then, any time the Bills found a way to counter punch, Myles Powell was there to nail a spectacular three to derail and sense of momentum
Auburn doesn’t have the length Seton Hall has, nor the superstar. But what they lack in those perspectives, they make up for in having bulldogs up and down the lineup. The depth of the Tigers is one of their most substantial assets, boasting a 9-man rotation that does not relent.
Bruce Pearls’ team is best described by being the “Little Thing King’s.” They are technically proficient and beat you in the details.
Anchored by KenPom’s number 2 defensive rebounder in the country in Austin Wiley, there are very few teams who can play with the Tigers in the rebound game. This is most impressive, considering they don’t have the height most teams have. They rank 106th in team height compared to Seton Hall’s 2nd. The Tigers prioritize the glass and have suffocated opponents on that end, eliminating second chance opportunities on defense and prompting those same chances for themselves on the offensive end.
While they don’t stand out defensively as a group that forces a ton of turnovers, but on the flip side, they rarely give up possession themselves. Senior Guard Samir Doughtry and J’vonMcCormick lead this team in the backcourt and are incredibly potent as a 1-2 punch. Dougtry is the anchor for the team offensively and leads the team with 18.5 points a game. Whereas McCormick prefers to act as a distributor leading the team with 51 assists.
Taking down the Tigers will be a tall order for the Billikens. They are extremely well-coached, disciplined, and talented up and down the lineup. But Auburn has shown signs of vulnerability. They’re coming off a controversial tight win over Furman eight days ago and beat South Alabama by just 1 earlier in the season. Saint Louis may have the right combination of skills to knock off the giants.
The Billikens offer a unique challenge for the Tigers. There isn’t a better tandem of rebounders than Jordan Goodwin and Hasahn French, who are the only pair of teammates in the nation average a double-double. The Billikens have a similar knack for rebounding the ball and can take away from the strength of the Tigers.
SLU also won’t be physically outmatched as in addition to their depth, they have the strength and have shown the grit to match up with a team like Auburn…on paper.
Additionally, Travis Ford’s team is coming off the best shooting performance in program history, dropping 17 threes’ in their matchup against Tulane. The Bills won’t shot like that against a team like Auburn, but if they are making shots, the pressure on the offense will alleviate. If the shooting can fill in the dead periods of Billiken offense, and limit potential Auburn runs, the Billikens may have a shot.
The real key for the Billikens is staying in the game for as long as they can. Ideally, for the entirety of the game. Even in the event of a loss, the Billikens can set themselves up for success in the future with a strong performance. What they absolutely cannot do is fall into a deep hole in the first five minutes and have the game be over immediately after it started. Saint Louis plays at a slower pace relative to the Tigers and have the tools to grind down opponents. If the Billikens can stop an outbreak, they can keep the game tight and competitive.
The Billikens have shown evidence of maturation. Limiting bad starts and showing the toughness Travis Ford seeks, they look like a more complete team now than they did against Seton Hall. They can prove themselves the real deal with a strong performance against an elite group.
Ultimately it will come down to execution. There is little room for error, but the Bills certainly have a shot. Travis Ford has proven time and time again this season, he builds effective game plans for an opponent. If the players can stay focused, execute, and get a little lucky, the Bills may be rolling in Birmingham. War Eagle.