By Carter Chapley
St. Louis, MO
The Billikens are back, and while they will certainly don their tradition blue, white, and black uniforms, they are also decidedly greener than ever. The reigning Atlantic 10 champions have welcomed seven new players to their ranks after graduating four key players from the roster.
For even the most dedicated Billiken fan, there is a lot to learn about this team.
The turnover is one of, if not the largest, year-to-year changes in Billiken history and puts the program in an interesting position.
On one hand, in the Coach Travis Ford era, he Billiken roster has never had more talent, and while it may have had more centralized talent, surely never the depth of talent. That being said the amount of question marks outweigh the certainties; and in a year in which the A10 is set up to be one of the most competitive conferences in Division one, the range of potential success varies wildly.
Travis Ford has made it clear he intends for his team to be a high tempo team. He told a group of fans at last Saturday’s open practice that he believes his team will be pressing for all 40 minutes a game. If that’s true, and at this point there is nothing to believe it won’t be, the Bills will need to use their best skill and depth, to make that work.
Billiken fans will have the opportunity to see a variety of lineups on any given night. You could spend hours discussing and debating the merits of the different combinations they have. This will allow Ford to send wave after wave of defenders at opponents while also having diverse offensive options to play with. It will also not make the Billikens so reliant on a single individual, like they were with Javon Bess last season.
Most outlets have the Billikens sitting somewhere in the six to nine range of the A-10, with the official A-10 preseason placing them at seven. This seems fair given the aforementioned question marks around the roster. VCU, Davidson, and Dayton are considered the tops of the conference, each team receiving votes in the pre-season National AP poll with VCU being ranked #25. Rhode Island, St. Bonaventure, and Duquesne are also expected to be forces in the top half of the standings. The Billikens will have to battle a gauntlet of tough opponents and be victorious to make a return to the NCAA tournament. There are very few breaks in the A-10 schedule, and while that will make it an exciting and competitive league, the Bills will have to vie for everything they get this season.
Billiken fans will have a lot of new faces to learn about for the upcoming season. Five freshmen have joined the squad, with an additional two transfers to round out the lineup. Each of them is expected to play some kind of role, but it is the returning players who are expected to be the driving engine of the program.
Then, to make things even more complicated, there are an additional two categories of returning players to consider. There is “The Big Three” and “The Effective Red Shirts”. The Big Three are the returners who played regular minutes last year. Starters and now Juniors, Hasahn French and Jordan Goodwin will continue to lead the team and will play the majority of minutes. Sophomore Fred Thatch Jr rounds out the big three as the Sikeston native is expected to make the jump from bench contributor to full time leader.
Each of these three have taken steps forward in their game over the offseason that will help the Billikens attempt a repeat of their A-10 championship. Early in practice some of these steps have become apparent.
Jordan Goodwin’s handle on the ball as well as his ability to lead an offence from the point guard position seems improved. Many have doubted his ability to play as a ‘true point guard’, but by his own admission it appears he will be playing more of a true point guard this year. Whereas last season he often times defaulted to more of a wing.
Fred Thatch Jr’s jump shot seems much improved and is looking more than comfortable in practice with the new three-point line. A major problem for Fred last season was being reliable on the offensive end. While he did provide instant energy and was a reliable defender, he was often inconsistent on offence. Adding a consistent, or even semi-consistent jump shot to space the floor, and force opposing defences to focus on Thatch will do wonders for the offence.
The most notable jump made by any of the big three though comes from Hasahn French. The 6’7” Junior has played as a post player for most (if not all) of his Billiken career. Often forced to guard and be guarded by the opposing Center, Hasahn is almost always battling a guy bigger than him. That being said, he is still one of the most dominating forwards in the A-10. Last season he made both the defensive first team and the all-conference third team and has already been named to the 2020 preseason all-conference second team and defensive first team. He is eleven blocks away from setting the Billikens all-time record and is already getting the dark horse buzz as a potential A-10 player of the year and then take all of that into consideration before knowing the steps he’s made in the offseason.
Hasahn French has come back to SLU looking like an entirely new man. He has somehow both added muscle and increased his mobility. He plays faster in practice than he did last season, while also still being big enough to play physically in the post. He moves with the ball far better than he has in the past and can defend with more versatility. He has started to show some aptitude for a midrange jumper and has been regularly taking three’s in practice. He is also saying he is more confident in his free throw shooting now.
Knowing the work ethic and development Hasahn has undergone in the past two years, I think it’s not if, but when does, Hasahn start taking open threes. If all of this translates over to game situations, against live opponents, Hasahn will be a nightmare matchup on both ends of the floor.
The two ‘redshirt’ returners are Demarius Jacobs and KC Hankton. These two both had opportunities to get into games last season but were plagued with injuries and never got a full opportunity to really show Billiken fans the potential they had. But the pair are now expected to make the leap and become major contributors.
I had written about Demarius previously and the significant physical and mental jump he has made since the Billikens last played in March, and at the time I was under the impression he would be a significant role player for the Bills. But since then it appears Demarius may in fact be the day one starter come November 5th, and while a common phrase in SLU history has been “starting is for high school”, it’s hard not to be impressed by the jump Jacobs has made.
KC Hankton had more opportunities to prove himself last year but ultimately never had the chance to break out. Given the departure of Carte’Are Gordon mid last season, KC was poised to take advantage of the vacant minutes. But a bum knee held him out and hampered him in the opportunities he did get. Travis Ford has made it clear he has high expectations for every member of his team, but often mentions Hankton as a guy the program will rely on to add both defensive intensity, rebounding, and outside shooting. The first guy off the bench will likely shift night-to-night based on need, but it wouldn’t surprise me if KC was the first guy in for the majority of games.
The seven new players joining the returning five are littered with talent. Each of them could breakout and be a major star on any given night. But adding seven new players also means there is a major learning curve to be had. Getting a defensive and offensive system to work while integrating new players is complicated, and while Travis Ford has praised his offence for meshing so well and being a team that “passes the ball really, really well”, the defense so far, in practice, has still been behind a step.
Each new player will play a vital role, with some being called upon to perform sooner rather than others. Transfers Tay Weaver and Javonte Perkins are both players the Billikens hope can be day one impact players, whereas freshmen Jimmy Bell Jr, Terrence Hargrove Jr, Yuri Collins, Gibson Jimerson, and Madani Diarra may be given a little more leeway to grow and develop.
Tay Weaver is a graduate transfer from Eastern Kentucky University and is expected to add perimeter shooting to the lineup right away. A volume shooter, taking over 200 three pointers last season for the Colonials, Tay can instantly space the floor. He is also well known for his high motor on defense.