Growing pains were a baked in aspect of the Billikens season that many predicted before this season started. I predicted that this team would lose games they shouldn’t and win games they shouldn’t. High highs, and low lows. While that technically hasn’t yet happened, it certainly feels like the Billikens are at a sticking point.

The growing pains are now here, and the Bills are now faced with challenges which they must overcome.

On the surface, devoid of context, the Billikens are in a decent place. 7-3, with a good road win and only losses to teams above you in national rankings. They’re still in a decent spot in the NET and the analytics are not cataclysmic. They have performed, on paper, largely to their expected outcomes with all things considered, i.e. the loss of Javonte Perkins.

However, with context factored in (as it should be) SLU is now on a two-game losing streak, with losses to mid-majors Belmont and UAB, in which both games should have resulted in wins. It is not the outcome that is disappointing, it is the process. Losing back-to-back games in which you led by double digits is killer. Especially when considering the ramifications of NCAA tournament resumes. But more on that later.

In this stretch, the most pressing problem that appears in the face of the Billikens seems to be that they have crumbled in crunch time. For example, largely the Billikens have good statistics. They rebound well on mass; they have a good shooting percentage. They go through sequences of playing legitimate and provable high-quality basketball.

But they are susceptible to truly horrific stretches. The offense becomes stagnant, the ball sticks, defensive schemes fall through. It appears that in that Travis Ford weave system some are on the same page of the options coming off actions and others are not as certain. Sloppy passes and mental lapses leading to turnovers, not grabbing defensive boards, giving opponents multiple chances to come square.

All sorts of things that for thirty minutes prior were no issue. But in those clutch moments, in the moments when winning is done. Things just don’t seem to click.

Part of that comes down to the Billikens experiencing those growing pains. Experienced teams, players, and coaches will tell you that learning *how* to win is a lesson you learn the hard way on occasion.

Both learning the leadership necessary to persevere as a teammate, and the skills and creativity on the basketball court to win on the scoreboard.

On the leadership perspective, it’s clear the Billikens have candidates and presences in the locker room to get through this rut. Yuri Collins, the most clear leader of the bunch thus far, laid himself on the sword after the game Tuesday night.

Quiet controversially Yuri said that Travis Ford told him and his teammates that the loss is on him, saying “At this point I have to take responsibility for everything. The last loss is on me and this one is on me. I’m the point guard. It’s been on me since day one.”


It’s easy to read this as borderline abusive from Travis Ford. The thought of a coach storming into a locker room and singling one player as at fault, doing so in front of the player and his teammates is…traumatic. But given the context of the Yuri-Travis relationship its far more likely that a.) this comment is a tad more hyperbolic or dramatic than it is literal or b.) Yuri wearing the heat for his team unprompted and not considering the exact verb

A10 media day is the most recent example but Travis had described the Billikens as Yuri’s team frequently since this team was formed. On many occasions Yuri has taken ownership of the locker-room and performances and did so in good times and in bad. When you have a floor general like Yuri, a lot of expectations can become the successes and defeats are placed at your feet.

Jordan Goodwin has explained in the past that the relationship between Travis Ford and his point guards has been unique. As a former PG himself, Ford expects a lot out of that position and that player and recruits it specifically for both its talents and personality. Yuri is the core of this Billiken team and is prepared to be that guy, but that also means he’s going to wear the losses harder… whether that’s from outside pressure or internally.

Yuri isn’t the only guy out there though. The same way this team is still getting over the loss of Jordan Goodwin, Hasahn French, and Javonte Perkins’ basketball production, losing that many leaders on the floor and in the locker room is hard to replace. It takes repetition to build that muscle and right now, Yuri is being asked to, (or is volunteering to) carry all of that load while others learn to step up.

With the leadership question discussed, the actual basketball growth remains. With the landscape, Saint Louis finds itself at a crossroads of identity and expectations are sure to come soon.

Is this team an At-Large team in the NCAA tournament, who believes it is good enough to get in without the drama of a conference championship? Or are they a nice, young team, who is still growing into future success but the expectation of beating top teams is still not there on an every night basis.

Deciding who you are can be really helpful in terms of how much you tolerate or what the expectations of performances can be. For example, if you are a nice young team who is looking for future success, you would want to see more of players like Jordan Nesbitt, Terrence Hargrove, and to a different extent Francis Okoro feature themselves in the offense more. Ask of them to look to attack more, become more comfortable in the system and seeing different looks/situations to grow your skill set on offense.

Unfortunately, that means you may see more mistakes from those guys and give less opportunities to veteran talent who may be lower risk players, more consistent outcome players. DeAndre Jones for example would be the kind of player who may be collateral damage in the situation and given how good he’s been for this team… that hardly seems fair. But in the pursuit of this team’s ultimate potential, that is how you optimize your minutes and talent.

Context helps inform expectations and what to look for. If you’re growing, let the kids grow. If you’re winning and it doesn’t matter how you win, the leash being shorter makes sense.

The Billikens are learning to win on the fly, and their early season successes made that context feel more solid than it, perhaps,  really was. The Bills can still have an excellent season, but it may take longer to figure out that many, especially those in the program, are comfortable with. The goal of the NCAA tournament will likely rest through a tournament in DC this March.

But that doesn’t mean that milestones can’t be hit, and major wins won’t show anything. Every game Saint Louis plays from now on is a test in one way or another, whether it be against highly talented teams or conference rivals.

The only waste of a game at this point is a game in which you don’t learn something, and whether it’s basketball or leadership, we will learn something very soon.