By Carter Chapley
St. Louis, MO
Sitting behind a microphone after his team’s 15th victory of the season, Head Coach Travis Ford was not interested in talking about the X’s and O’s in the win over Fordham. He wanted to talk about a man he had great respect for and what that man did for the game he loves.
With tears in his eyes, a heartbroken Ford said, “It’s a tragic day for the game of basketball. I heard about it before I went out. Man, it threw me for a loop. It’s all I could think about. I said a prayer for him and his family before and after the game. It doesn’t seem real.”
“What he’s meant to this game, and what it’s meant to me. And just the type of person that he is. That’s just the first thing I have to bring up. That’s more important than this game. And what his family’s going through and the game of basketball, we’ve lost a good person.”
“For somebody like myself where basketball’s been my life, it’s all I’ve ever done or known, somebody I’ve followed, studied, used as an example to my players countless times…Kobe Bryant defined that, he defined what it meant to dedicate yourself to the game and to work at it and treat it right.”
It was only moments before the Billikens took the floor for introductions when a palpable buzz filled Chaifetz Arena. Rumors turned to confirmed reports as the atmosphere turned from optimistic to something much heavier.
But a basketball game was to be played, and the Billikens had to bounce back quickly to get into the win column once again after dropping their previous two games, bringing their A-10 record to a disappointing 3-3.
The Billikens had been challenged in playing up to their potential rather than down to their opponents. They were able to keep with the Dayton Flyers but fell flat against the Davidson Wildcats. They, often times, look like two separate teams. But their opponent offered them an opportunity to start fresh. The lowly Fordham Rams have been the basement dwellers of A-10 Men’s basketball for a long time, and if the Billikens were looking for an opportunity to get back on the right foot, this would be the team to do it against.
What transpired was an inspired defensive effort from the Billikens, holding the Rams to a season-low 39 points. But on the other side of the court, the Billikens offense stalled, and the Bills only put up 55 points themselves. A season low. The first half was a far better one for Saint Louis, scoring 32 of their 55 in that half. But with the game clearly in hand after the first few moments of the second half, the pace slowed down, and the quality of basketball from both teams diminished.
Part of what made for the offensive struggle was Fordham’s unique defensive scheme, utilizing an aggressive 2-3 zone that Travis Ford says he spent a long time trying to crack. Even staying up till 2am the previous night sending play ideas to assistant coaches for last-minute feedback. The solution was ultimately using Javonte Perkins’ and Jordan Goodwin’s growing midrange abilities to find the seams of the defense and put up shots from elbows of the key.
Hasahn French was dominant on the boards and in the defensive end but was once again held silent on offense going just 2-3 shooting for 5 points due to Fordham’s decision to double, triple, or even quadruple team him at every turn. This is the second game in a row where this strategy has effectively kept French silent on offense.
For the second game in a row, Tay Weaver provided valuable minutes on both offense and defense. Weavers increase in playing time directly corresponds with his increased understanding of the defensive scheme the Billikens are running. Weaver is adapting from a style of play at his former school, Eastern Kentucky, that is designed around extreme aggression on D. The holdover from that style left Weaver as an absolute liability for the Bills and was basically unplayable if he couldn’t hit a shot right away.
With the adjustments made on the defense and a longer leash from Coach Ford, Weaver has looked far more comfortable and has been able to produce more effectively both from three and off the dribble. Going 5-6 from the free-throw line if Weaver can continue to add offensive depth while being a reliable guard defender (grabbing 2 steals and 6 rebounds in addition to the strong shooting), the Billikens may be getting a key addition to their depth chart just in time to make a run to the conference tournament.
The Billikens got a much-needed win over a weak conference opponent. It opened a string of five games before they take on Dayton again, where they need to collect wins to put themselves in a strong position for the conference tournament. The Bills showed the ability to bounce back and get a win and dominate an opponent from tip to final horn. The victory was never in doubt, they went wire to wire right from when first got the lead a minute into the game. But it was clear the team dipped in outcomes midway through when that win was secured.
A win was good. A consistent performance would be better. Jordan Goodwin said after the game, when asked what it will take to become an A-10 champion team, “Get out of these little scoring droughts, these little slumps. We’ll play at a high level for 7-8 minutes, then next for minutes it’s like ‘what team is this on the basketball court?’. Once we play a full 40-minute basketball game, we will be alright.”
Consistency is key for these Billikens. This was a step in the right direction, but only the first step.