By Carter Chapley
St. Louis, MO
The short story of the week in Billiken basketball is that they won two games, they are now in a tie for third place in the conference, and, are on a three-game win streak. The reality of the situation was that the Bills escaped Philadelphia with two tight wins over teams they are, or were, expected to crush.
Riding the hot hand of Javonte Perkins, who has solidified himself as the best offensive threat the Billikens have, SLU got out of Saint Josephs with a 78-73 win, rounding out the road trip with a 2-0 week, and moving themselves into a better conference position than when they started the week.
After needing overtime to put away LaSalle earlier in the week, and having a weak first 28(ish) minutes against St. Joes, there appeared to be justifiable worry about how dominant the Billikens can be. The pair of opponents combined to have just 1 conference win and, given the aspirations of the Billikens, any time of loss would be devastating. But a ‘bad win’ per se is also harmful. The Bills don’t control their own destiny in terms of an at large bid into the NCAA tournament. They need to beat these bad teams more thoroughly to earn their way into the national consciousness again, and prove they are truly a top end team. They didn’t do that this week.
There is a lot to be said about the difficulties of playing on the road, and how it becomes even more difficult when playing said games in the conference schedule. That is true and should be considered. When you go into someone else’s gym and come away with a win its always a good thing. No one wants to let someone come into their house and stomp all over them, so performances like the one we saw from Ryan Daly, who had a career high 35 points and was seemingly unstoppable, should not be terribly surprising.
The primary concern of this Billikens team is their seemingly fluid capabilities based on the ability of their opponents. Saint Louis has gone on the road and played very well on multiple occasions, getting excellent performances in wins at Richmond, K-State, and Boston College. They’ve also played extremely well over tougher opponents like Dayton, and Auburn. The Bills have seemingly no problem rising to the occasion against strong teams but struggle mightily against teams seemingly below them.
There are mitigating factors to that. The Bills are playing without two of their stronger players in a system already not conducive to blowing anyone out. But they are also extremely young, one of the youngest in the nation according to the KenPom experience ranker. Part of playing up to your ability day in, day out is experience, so the Bills not having that tool is forgivable but frustrating.
With the Duquesne Dukes coming into Chaifetz Arena next, and then going to Dayton after that, the truth about the performances in Philadelphia will emerge. Are the Bills a good team who plays inconsistently, or do they have serious flaws emerging that conference opponents are becoming wise to and taking advantage of?
There was a bright side to the road trip though, and it came in the emergence of Javonte Perkins as an offensive threat that you can lean on in times of trouble. Putting up a 33-point, career high performance of his own at St. Joes, Perkins was there every time the Bills needed him. At one point going on a 13-point streak as the Bills only scorer.
Part of this streak of poor performances, dating back to the loss at Davidson, comes at the exact same time that Hasahn French’s and Jordan Goodwin’s offensive outputs had been flatlining. They have been easy targets as of late defensively because opposing teams have been able to play a 2-3 zone with no consequences and thereby double or triple team French in the post, and ice out Jordan’s driving abilities. Javonte becoming a third option that you have to game plan for, both as a slasher and a shooter, it becomes increasingly more difficult to spread defensive resources so thin.
Even if it means that Javonte doesn’t score at that same rate again this season, in this case the threat of being a threat is extremely valuable. It is akin to how valuable Gibson Jimerson was even when he wasn’t taking shots. It is not a direct parallel, but a similar circumstance. Javonte has performed as the Bills most diverse scoring threat for quite some time, averaging 20.3 points per game since the Richmond game and with a breakout statistical night it is inevitable that teams will begin to focus on him more.
The Billikens have put themselves in position to continue to build a resume for the post-season, and to keep themselves in the top half of the A-10. The close games in Philly did them no favors, but they haven’t hindered them as of yet. The back half of the season doesn’t get any easier, so they will have every chance to win important games and raise their stock.
But, if they continue to perform as is, and not grow or boost their performance they are going to be in for a long second half. Thus far they have given no reason to believe that will happen, but the odds are now stacked against SLU and the margin for error is razor thin.