The Billikens have returned to their winning ways. After their 28 day lay-off and losing two games that have put them on the outside looking in on potential NCAA tournament at-large bid chances, the Billikens have bounced back in a very positive way. Getting emphatic wins over St. Bonaventure, Rhode Island, and Fordham—each in a different significant win than the other—Saint Louis is back on track towards their ultimate goal.
The version of the Billikens we are seeing, though, is different. It may be more familiar, but different from the team we saw that went 7-1 in 2020.
Yes, they are still working out some kinks, and yes, the team isn’t as sharp as they have been, perhaps, when it comes to their shooting ability or raw skills. Players like Javonte Perkins, Hasahn French, and Gibson Jimerson have all admitted they are very much still working out the kinks in those departments.
But what we are seeing is a classic Travis Ford Saint Louis University Billikens team. It is a team that has gotten back to its roots of playing gritty, physical defense. After allowing 75+ points in their first two matchups of conference play, both losses, the Billikens have yet to allow more than 60 points in their three wins since then. Averaging just 53 points per game.
The Billikens have found success through focusing on their calling card, their identity. Travis Ford called on his players to focus less on creating big plays through shots and more about doing the little things right.
“I’ve talked to Coach Ford about this a little bit, not necessarily worrying about getting shots or making shots. Just getting into the game.” Gibson Jimerson said after the SLU win over Rhode Island, continuing, “Just Losing myself in other parts of the game. Whether that’s on the defensive end, or rebounding. But just playing hard and getting involved in the game. And the offense will come.”
Saint Louis has gotten back to basics. Rebounding, playing defense, and passing the ball. Rather than trying to outswing or outscore opponent’s they are taking care of the defensive end.
Hasahn French woke up in the Billikens much-needed rout of Fordham and pulled in 11 rebounds in just 24 minutes. Gibson Jimerson has set career-high rebounding numbers, and Javonte Perkins has been filling out the stat sheet beyond the points column in a way we haven’t quite seen him do as a Billiken.
When the Billikens made the NCAA tournament two seasons ago, they succeeded on the back of this mantra. With one of the least efficient offenses in the country but one of the most formidable defenses to match it, the Billikens won four games in Brooklyn and made a surprise run to the big dance. Travis Ford teams prefer to be in rock fights rather than track meets.
Now the Billikens have a roster with far more raw offensive talent. The players have implied that Travis Ford has urged them to focus less on what they can do when the ball is in their hand and how they can be impactful when not asked to shoot the ball.
For some players, like Yuri Collins (and more recently Jordan Goodwin with Collins injury), this isn’t exactly an issue. They are responsible for creating offense and holding on to the ball. But for Gibson Jimerson, the change in mindset has been revolutionary for the 6’6 sophomore.
For the three games leading into his standout performance vs. Rhode Island and many before the Covid pause, Jimerson had been practically unplayable on the defensive end. Getting blown by regularly and explicitly targeted by opposing offenses, Jimerson saw his usage rate halved because Travis Ford simply couldn’t have him on the floor as a liability.
“Usually when my shots aren’t falling, that kind of seeps its way into the rest of my game. But Coach Ford really encouraged me in a meeting before the game to focus more on what I do away from that and just to know that the shots are going to come.” Gibson Jimerson said in the post-game zoom after a 68-40 win over Fordham.
His honesty is a refreshing look into the psyche of a college basketball player. A guy whose job it is to score (and more specifically shoot from three) not seeing the ball go in is damaging. But the mental reframing shows a certain amount of mental fortitude and fight to get better.
The same goes for Javonte Perkins. The senior forward has slowly improved in terms of his off-ball contributions all season, but in the weeks following the pause, his focus became more evident. Javonte’s role on this team is to create offense; he has the green light to essentially do whatever he likes.
But he had become extremely inefficient in his efforts. Shooting as low as 26% from the field. On their three-game winning streak, he is shooting 43%, adding five rebounds, two assists, and a steal. His scoring potential has increased with the addition of the rest of his game. And the team is winning.
By focusing on the more complete game and getting back to SLU’s defensive roots, the Billikens are not only playing better basketball. But unlocking the key to their offense as well. The Bills are a talented bunch. It might be fair to argue that this is the deepest team they have ever had. They have the offensive talent to focus their minds elsewhere.
But defense takes focus. Rebounding takes effort.
The new mindset Travis Ford has installed in his team has righted the ship. They are back on their way to being a tournament team and the most dangerous team in the A-10. Now they need to execute.