This is the third installment in a multipart series serving as a preseason primer to all things Saint Louis University Men’s Basketball for the 2021-22 season. Part Two can be found here.
Key Season Matchups
Travis Ford and his staff deserve a lot of credit for their ingenuity and fearlessness in terms of scheduling good games this season. They learned last year that winning a high number of games isn’t as valuable as winning “good” games even if a loss comes by virtue of playing good teams. A loss is more tolerable to the committee when it’s surrounded by other good wins essentially, or major wins overshadow losses is another way of seeing it.
Knowing that, Ford went out and packed a schedule with quality mid-major and major opponents. It was made clear to me at some point that Travis really avoided going on the road if he could avoid it and advocated for neutral site games if he absolutely had to. K-State in Kansas City, Auburn in Birmingham, Tulane in Phoenix, Pittsburg in Brooklyn, Florida State in Sunrise. All examples of away games where they weren’t someone else’s home games. When you look at the schedule since 2018-19, the amount of quality non-conference road games is slim. Seton Hall and Houston in 2018, Boston College in 2019, and Minnesota in 2020.
A trend that stays true in 2021 as the Billikens will only be going to Memphis and Boise State. But through clever planning, the actions of the past while smile favorably on this team. Boston College comes to Chaifetz Arena as a return to that 2019 game, and Auburn comes to STL as a return for the neutral site game in 2019 before the Bills head there in 2022 to fulfill the three-game deal.
SLU will have plenty of opportunity to see major conference action, as well as national ranked competition. Those games against Auburn and Boston College in the same week, Memphis to open the year and Drake to close it. Tie in a trip to Boise and you’ve got five resume making games come March.
But the real beauty in the schedule is finding “diamonds in the rough” and taking on those challenges, as well as being brave enough to face down other mid-majors/bubble teams – like so many in the national public discourse have been asking for. Boise and Drake are examples of facing good mid-majors – but the Billikens games scheduled against Belmont and UAB represent high quality matchups against teams in projected peak years for them.
Even the MTE they play in–The Cancun Challenge– while underwhelming in terms of marquee games, is not a set of cupcakes. They will see Mercer, Illinois State and Buffalo or Stephen F Austin.
The trip to Tennessee represents, likely, the best game on the schedule and potentially the game against the highest rank opponent since going to Duke in 2010. Penny Hardaway has been busy on the recruiting circuit, getting top recruits in the country– including Emoni Bates and Jalen Duran…both likely top 5 NBA draft picks. They also picked up Earl Timberlake, who transferred from Miami and is another Draft hopeful.
Memphis is deep and talented. They won the NIT last year and only got better. As young as they are they also bring back Lester Quinones, Landers Nolley, and Deandre Williams, who will be 25 before the season starts and was the star of last season’s team and will look to be the focal point again for offensive initiation.
Talent is not the problem on Memphis’ hands. It will be far more about meshing that talent together and making it work right. Finding roles for those three returners, and their three new players in addition to the four other players (three of which are freshmen) who will fill out the roster, will, ultimately, be the challenge.
If this team stays together, and there is no guarantee they do in a Penny Hardaway team as history shows us, there is no doubt they will be a force come March. But in November the Billikens best hope is to be more coordinated and more disciplined than the newly formed super team.
The Billikens will play five games before making the trek south. Two exhibitions, one NAIA game, and two D1 games. Memphis will also play two exhibitions and two D1 games before they see Saint Louis. You hope that extra game against Harris Stowe does the trick.
SLU will not be the favorite on an opponent’s home court. But they will be the first halfway decent team they see this year and could shock the team boasting two 17-year old’s who should be still in high school and a transfer coming off a major injury.
And if they do shock them, the Billikens will be off to the races in a year perhaps destined for greatness.
After years of programs highs under Bruce Pearl, Auburn had a down year in 2020-21 but is looking to have a bounce back season.
Pearl was an active participant in the transfer portal this summer, both gaining and losing players. In addition to Sharife Cooper and JT Thor who were draft picks, the Tigers also lost Justin Powell and Jamal Johnson to the portal. On the other side of the transfer sheet, Auburn has brought in Walker Kessler (UNC), KD Johnson (Georgia), Wendell Green (Eastern Kentucky), and Zep Jasper (Charleston).
Having the Tigers come to Chaifetz Arena will be an important factor in a game against a potential top 25 opponent, from both an excitement and tactical perspective. The Billikens will look to get a major win and will want the crowd on their side, but also, last season Auburn was one of the worst teams in the country in defending transition offense. Teams shot 54% on them in transition and 32% of total shots on them came in that style, good for 230th and 339th in the country respectively. In a packed Chaifetz Arena, getting downhill and momentum going will be a vital asset.
That being said…Auburn is going to be a different team this season. They’ve brought in three new projected starters in Green, Kessler, and K.D. Johnson and a fourth in freshman recruit Jabari Smith. They have also addressed their depth and athleticism. This team will not be as susceptible to being run on and over.
The Tigers have multiple lineups they can run out, but they will largely be a team that plays out of its front court with Walker Kessler and Jabari Smith being the jewels of the recruiting season and defining pieces. If Auburn is able to figure out a defense that eliminates their major weakness and find an identity on offense that lets them produce enough in a slower, front court-oriented way, it would be hard to see the Tigers not making the big dance.
Coming off a program high in 2020-21 that led to a NCAA Tournament appearance, the Bulldogs return most of their talent and look to continue to compete in a very top-heavy Missouri Valley Conference this year.
The Bulldogs were bit by the injury bug last season and still found a way to be highly competitive late in the season, but now healthy and deep, Drake will look to scare those outside the Valley as well. Roman Penn and Shanquan Hemphill are back after season ending injuries, seniors D.J. Wilkins, Garrett Sturtz,, and Tremell Murphy also return.
Head Coach Darian DeVries also brought in two key newcomers, Guard Ayo Akinwole from Omaha, and Tucker DeVries– son of Coach Darian and the top recruit in the conference, ranked 99th in the nation by 24/7. Passing up Creighton, Iowa State, and Florida to stay home and play for Dad.
The only exiting impact player is Joseph Yesufu, who found a home at Kansas.
Saint Louis vs Drake in Las Vegas over Christmas is an important game for the Billikens in that it’s basically a show me game for last season. Many felt the Bulldogs didn’t deserve their NCAA bid over the Billikens and this is their chance to prove that the Bills are clearly the higher profile and deserving program. This obviously means nothing tangibly or practically but having the game as another resume builder against a competitive team is also important.
Drake could very well win the Valley again. A win over the Arch Madness champion is important, no matter the year.
A Thought on Each Other Non-Conference Game
Belmont– The clear favorite to win the Ohio Valley Conference in their final season there before moving to the MVC. They’ve put together a solid roster and will be tested heavily before they arrive in Midtown. Beating the OVC favorites is an important win on principle year after year. I love these games.
UAB– One of the major winners of the transfer market this summer. They bring in transfers from Georgetown, Auburn, USF, Tulane, Clemson, and Ole Miss. The Blazers are another team who could see their way into March Madness by winning the C-USA. A lot of talent coming to Chaifetz Arena. This is a game/win that I think will look better and better as the year goes on.
Boise State– The Broncos are consistently a contender in the Mountain West and this year should be no different. They return a large majority of their scoring despite losing two starters to the pros and transfer portal. They will absolutely be a player on the bubble come March and having the win over them will be huge in that equation later in the year. Only thing I’m worried about is going away to Idaho for this one.
Boston College– BC comes to STL to return the home-and-home the Bills organized pre-pandemic. The Bills went to Boston and beat the Eagles handily. Last season the Eagles won four games but since then every notable player has left and this team is essentially completely different now. This BC team is young and doesn’t have the trauma of losing like the old group. They probably aren’t as good as you hope a P5 matchup would be, but it could end up being better than last year and that’s a start.
Cancun Challenge: Not an ideal MTE to find yourself in in terms of competition and prestige. Games against Mercer (at SLU), Illinois State, and ether Buffalo or Stephen F Austin aren’t going to put you into the Big Dance… but sometimes taking your guys to Mexico for 5 days in November isn’t so bad as an experience/recruiting tool. Considering how many tough games they have, going in to try and win the Cancun Challenge outright and hopefully enjoy the beach a little isn’t the worst thing in the world.
Central Arkansas and Eastern Illinois: Bye games, you can’t pay a team to come to you and not blow them out. Win and Cover. It’ll be nice to have Billiken alum Jack Raboin, who is on the Eastern Illinois staff, return to Chaifetz but the Bills should win big and use these games to tune up for Memphis and beyond.
What to expect from the A-10?
Well, I am immediately going to cop to being misleading in this segment’s header. “What to expect” implies a certain level of certainty in predicting how this conference will play out. We have some predictability in terms of we think XYZ will be talented or not, but it’s very hard to pretend to know that Z will be definitively better than Y for example.
Reigning A-10 champion St. Bonaventure will be the favorite in the conference, returning all their primary players and will be very tough to take down as they look to repeat as champions.
Then there is a second tier of teams many feel any combination of such could be top-4 teams headed into the conference tournament (this year in Washington DC!). Richmond players have decided to run it back and will use their super senior seasons to try and right the wrongs of their Covid year. Dayton has one of the better recruiting classes in the country–21st in the nation and best in program history– and will certainly compete for one of those top 4 spots. VCU is poised to continue being a high-level player despite Bones Hyland being drafted, but injuries could stymie their ascent. Davidson is always pesky despite losing some key talent to the transfer portal. George Mason has a new head coach they are excited about, and Rhode Island is looking to see the return on investment on some of their younger transfers from a year ago. UMass will also be looking to compete in a post Tre Mitchell season.
All of this is to say, that the Conference feels more balanced and competitive than it has been in a long time. Maybe it’s that the drop off from the top feels less steep than it’s been, but it feels like a really good conference this winter. Sure, Fordham and George Washington will be hard pressed to compete in a real way, but the conference will likely boast 8 top 150 programs. The depth is going to make conference season very competitive, and very exciting. If conference members can meet or exceed expectations in the non-conference, building resumes for themselves, we could be looking at a 3-Bid-League.
It’s very possible the Billikens take a little while to find themselves and hit their stride. They have a lot of players looking to excel and find themselves and unfortunately, often, that simply just takes time. Games solve a lot of issues that practice just can’t replicate. Players like Francis Okoro and Jordan Nesbitt may simply need time to get to their peak.
But I believe that Iron sharpens Iron. This team will get better by playing the best. They will certainly be competitive, but we’ve seen from Travis Fords ideology that he wants this team to be at its peak for March. This schedule gets this team battle tested better than ever. Therefore, outcomes need to be viewed through this prism when the time comes…as hard as that may be.
Carter Chapley has burst onto the scene becoming one of the most trusted voices in Billikens Athletics and beyond for Scoops with Danny Mac.
Starting at the University News, Carter joined Scoops in 2019 and has provided coverage primarily on Saint Louis University Athletics, including Basketball, Soccer, and Baseball. He has also written on such major events as the NCAA Tournament, Arch Madness, the NHL All-Star Game, the founding of STL City FC, and the NCAA reaction to the Covid-19 Pandemic.
You can find Carter more on Twitter at @ChapleyMedia where he will always be talking Billikens, Sports, and More!