On the one hand, I, like many Billikens followers, are eagerly awaiting the teams return to the hardwood. It has been over a month since the Bills played a game and 26 days since the team went on full-blown shutdown. 80% of the team contracted the virus at one point or another. Travis Ford seemingly had the worst of it himself, telling the public he battled the Coronavirus for about eight hard days. And in the short days and long nights of January, SLU fans have been missing their Bills as a small escape from this pandemic. Especially having seen the rest of the A-10 play exciting and competitive games.
Moral quandaries to relying on unpaid teen/early 20’s athletes to provide entertainment in a pandemic aside, many, including myself, are still holding their breath that their return game against Dayton will still happen.
But let’s put the rose-colored glasses on for a moment and just assume the game is played. The coveted (and increasingly less fictional) Arch-Baron Cup will be up for grabs. The Billikens will only have five full days to prepare for the game. According to Travis Ford, the team is essentially starting from scratch.
What exactly can we expect from this Billikens team? Players like Jordan Goodwin, Yuri Collins, and Hasahn French have been out of quarantine the longest and, therefore, working on conditioning the longest. Which bodes well for the team, considering they will be called upon most to play long minutes. But everything as to the team’s readiness at this point is speculation.
Ford likes to remind whoever will listen that his team is going through a unique circumstance. While many have missed games, and some have even had extended periods of time away from the court, but none or almost none have missed a month and had the entire team contract the virus. Having to sit in your apartment or some hotel room is one thing, but now the program is also dealing with the potential long-term health concerns post-COVID life can bring. The nightmare scenario is watching another version of Florida’s Keynote Johnson happen in Chaifetz Arena.
There are some case studies to look to in the immediate galaxy the Billikens play in and ones outside of their world that are worth looking at. So, I want to take the opportunity to cover some of these case studies as a measure of tempering expectations for Billikens fans and perhaps contexting what we may see step on to the floor in the immediate future.
In house, the Billiken Women have undergone very similar significant shutdowns and absences from the court. Earlier this week, Lisa Stone’s team returned after their third pause this season. In both games against the UMass Minutewomen, the Billikens raced out to leads early before running out of steam and giving up the advantage before half-time. In the first game, the Bills never recovered and trailed the rest of the way, but in the second half of the back-to-back Stones group found their footing and eventually won by double-digits.
Travis Ford has communicated with Lisa Ford about protocols and learning from the women’s team experience ever since the first shut down the women encounter. It wouldn’t be too much to say that this example may most resemble what the team will look like when they return.
A pair of A-10 teams had significant delays to the start of the season before finally kicking off their 2020-21 campaign. UMass and St. Bonaventure both needed 20+ days to start the season after their own positive cases and opponents. The Minutemen have been up and down, but largely, their season has been par for the course, continuing to build on Tre Mitchell’s talent and improving. They weren’t expected to be world-beater, but relatively solid they have been. St. Bonaventure, on the other hand, has jumped out of the gate to be one of the best mid-majors in the nation. They were expected to be quality but having started 7-1 and beating other high-end teams in the A-10 like VCU, the Bonnies are placing themselves as NCAA at-large candidates. Mark Schmidt teams always find a way to be competitive, but this group has championship-caliber written all over themselves.
All of this being said. This is missing games at the start of the season, not starting up, and shutting down mid-year. Though, Duquesne was forced to shut down for over a month after playing just two non-conference games. When they did return, the Dukes struggled mightily and have continued to struggle. Keith Dambrot’s crew has been sluggish and discombobulated. The typically physical and up-tempo group has been unable to get to their game plan and have looked more like a shell of who they were last season. This decline came when star point guard Sincere Carry decided to leave the program and reportedly look to transfer.
It’s hard to know if there is a correlation between the shutdown and Carry’s decision to transfer. But the two factors have contributed to the Dukes looking very much unlike themselves.
The rest of the A10 has been largely untouched, fortunately. So, to find similar situations, the Billikens will look outside the conference.
Houston may be one of the best teams to look at to relate to the Billiken’s struggles. Kelvin Sampson’s team is one of the best in the nation, ranked 6th in the kenpom, and missed two weeks in early December when the entire team reportedly caught Covid. “All 15 players,” he told SI after the team paused on December 8th.
A team that missed significant time, is a national powerhouse, and every player has caught COVID? Sounds like the Billikens.
The Cougars have won games unique fashion. They crash the boards, ranking first in the nation in offensive rebounding, have the second-best defense in college basketball, and are 13 and 1. They are also one of the slowest teams in the games, with an adjusted tempo ranking in the low 300’s, and 332nd in average offensive possession length. Houston is going to grind you to death and smile at you while doing it.
Travis Ford teams of old would do something similar. So, there is a familiarity to that type of game. The style is beneficial to a team that may be worried about conditioning. Because of that, the Cougars have seen no problems because of this and maybe the roadmap for success.
Other teams have had different perspectives to look at. The Florida State Seminoles missed two weeks at the start of ACC play, and they haven’t missed a step. They’ve played as wild and high flying on offense as ever. Michigan State has missed three games in January, but Tom Izzo’s team has kept marching on. Jim Boeheim and the Syracuse Orange had the longest gap in games in the Boeheim era earlier this season, and the team still looks a step behind.
Ultimately, it’s impossible to say what’s going to happen after a Covid shut down. There have been too many cases on either side proving that the team will be just fine, or they will crawl weak for weeks.
But what we do know is that there is a marathon about to take place for the Billikens. The A-10 and SLU will rush to fill in the schedule to play as many games as possible, and they might have to play on less rest than normal in a standard year.
So, for the context. The Billikens likely won’t be the same team we saw in the NC State game or even the KC game. But there is enough evidence to show that with the reliance on their seniors for key minutes and the experience even the depth players show, the Billikens may be able to cobble together enough of a game plan to play well against the Dayton Flyers and the Richmond Spiders later this week.
The bigger concern may be more as the season goes on. Coaches on two separate teams have told me that they aren’t so worried for their return appearance, “They will be so amped up they won’t realize their tired till they are in bed that night” on A-10 assistant coach told me. It will be the future recovery and body maintenance that may be the biggest issue.
The Billikens are back. Rejoice and be glad, no matter the outcomes.