With the disappointing season that was once filled with optimism and expectation finally at a close, SLU Basketball fans are left to sit and wonder, “what comes next?”
In many ways, this season was supposed to be the apex. With three seniors leading the way, all three could statistically end up being some of the best we’ve ever seen in SLU Blue; if there was going to be a year to break through and win games in late March, it was 2021.
But then a pandemic happened.
Saint Louis was left playing in front of empty arenas, with bizarre travel and practice schedules and little in-person time to create chemistry and cohesion on-and-off the court. Then 11 Billiken players come down with the illness and are isolated for 28 days in the middle of the season. The only exercise they can do is on stationary bikes and whatever equipment the department can scrounge up for them.
Travis Ford admitted his bout with the novel coronavirus was serious and impacting. Some players have hinted at the fact that they, too, were not simply asymptomatic.
I’ve spent plenty of time talking about how hurt this team was by coronavirus and how few teams in the country were impacted by it to the degree they were. Some players are still feeling hindrances from the virus all these months. At the end of the day, the Billikens were bounced from college ball this year in the first round of the NIT.
Where they never looked quite right.
Jordan Goodwin and Hasahn French ended their career in less than stellar ways despite personal successes. They could never quite get the team to where they wanted to be, and often times needed to force the issue and play hero ball to try and make things work—which rarely does when resorting to that style.
Part of the frustration within Billiken land is now having to sit and watch the NCAA tournament while continuously thinking, “that could have been us.” Especially when looking at fellow Jesuit Institution, the Loyola-Chicago Ramblers, making its second trip to the Sweet Sixteen in four years under former SLU assistant coach Porter Moser. Which leaves a salty taste in the mouths of Saint Louis fans everywhere.
It’s impossible to say what could have been this season if everything went according to plan. If there was no Covid, or if the team never got sick. The quality of play Travis Ford had his team achieving at late last season and into the Conference schedule of this year was some of the best SLU has seen since Rick Majerus. It has only been post-illness that the Bills looked weak and disorganized.
The “sitting on the couch and home” of having to watch the other programs go to the big dance rather than Team Blue, has left faithful asking many questions. Questions like, “Is Travis Ford the man for this job?”.
I honestly believe that if last year’s conference tournament played out, and the Billikens are not struck with a mass outbreak, this conversation isn’t happening (mainly in part to the fact that they probably make one if not two NCAA tournaments, but I digress). The job Ford has done by pulling the program out of the trenches of the A-10 and into a team that expects to win the conference and make the tournament is commendable. He has created a pipeline of talent year after year now that makes the team competitive and—until recently—largely performed on the upward trajectory that the Ford administration charted for themselves. Step One was “Always be competitive,” and they have put themselves in a place where they are, at the very minimum, competitive.
That being said, it may not matter. In poker, you don’t get to claim you should have won the hand because of the cards dealt two hands ago. You play the hand in front of you. The hand currently dealt to Travis Ford is one NCAA tournament appearance in five years. No national post-season tournament wins, and your generational stars are now gone. Next season will be a proof of concept to the Billiken supporters that this coach can keep his team achieving past his recruiting success of four years ago.
The Team Moving Forward
Speaking of which, Travis Ford has set up this Billiken squad for success through his recruiting. With Jordan Goodwin and Hasahn French departing, they leave behind a group of players who are all competitively capable and ready to take the next step into stardom. Yuri Collins is already a bonafide high-end division-one point guard. Fred Thatch and Marten Linssen played critical minutes against the best competition. Javonte Perkins will come into the college basketball season to not only be a first-team all-conference player but as a favorite to win the Atlantic 10 player of the year.
Then a second group of players are waiting in the wings. Players like Gibson Jimerson and Demarius Jacobs will be looking to re-establish themselves as high-value contributors. (It’s possible no one on the team was hurt more by the Covid stoppage than these two. This leads to some interesting questions about shooting and how rhythm/flow plays a role in their ability to contribute. But that’s a story for another day.) Jimmy Bell Jr is also in this group. As a player who seemed to find his rhythm late in the season but was never really asked to– or may be expected to– make a significant impact. Now is his time to make the next move.
And then there are the question marks. Markhi Strickland showed flashes of his supreme athleticism but ultimately never got the chance to displayed sustained performance (I can’t blame him for that). Phillip Russell proved to be a very interesting, and at the worst, capable reserve point guard. Without Jordan Goodwin to take time at the 1, he will get a chance to be Yuri’s backup. Andre Lorentsson looked like a fish out of water in his freshman campaign, but it is hard to judge the young Swede as he was the last to arrive on campus and was constantly playing catchup. I am very interested in what the sharpshooting forward can do with an entire off-season in the weight room and in the gym with the staff.
There is also Francis Okoro. The Oregon transfer spent the year rehabbing. While the process seemed slow, the ability to not rush back will ultimately pay dividends for his success. It seems safe to say Okoro is penciled in as the starting five going into next year. His upside as a center is tantalizing, but having come off an injury, he will be looking to prove himself as “The Guy,” especially considering there are two other centers on the roster in Bell and Linssen who are there to pick up the slack should things not work right away.
Finally, Terrence Hargrove Jr is, in my opinion, by far the most exciting player on the roster going into next season. He belongs in a category all on his own. TJ became far more trustworthy defensively as the year went on and found more ways to impact the game using his athleticism and length. And then, on top of all that, he started to show that he is a very serviceable three-point shooter, making at least two 3’s in four of the last seven games and a least a three in five of the previous seven. If Terrence can just be a high-energy, defensively net-positive 3-and-D type of player at the very least, the Terrence Hargrove development would have worked. If he’s anything more, if he takes another step in the off-season and becomes a better handler, or shot creator, or passer, or better defender as a whole, we are looking at an absolute stud.
Taking all of what you just read into account, SLU is in a very unique situation in terms of recruiting and what they will do with the three scholarships at their disposal.
They have three no matter if any of their departing stars change their minds and return. The NCAA extended eligibility rules make it so. So, Javonte Perkins staying at SLU does not impact that number. On top of that, if a player decides to transfer, which is very much a possibility, that will open up even more open Scholarships. It appears, though, that won’t be the likely case this offseason if Travis Ford is to be believed.
The point of all this is that there will be changes to the roster moving forward. Even if they only bring in two new scholarship players and use the third open scholarship to make Phillip Russell an official scholarship athlete, bringing in two players who the staff will want to be impact players will change the way the Billikens operate in the 2021-22 season.
Filling the holes left behind by Jordan Goodwin and Hasahn French is an incredibly tall task. I’m reminded of the movie Moneyball where Brad Pitt has to replace three studs with unique skillsets just to have the chance to make the playoffs (the book is far more nuisance). The Billikens will need to find a way to replace nearly 20 rebounds, 23.7 points per game, 58-floor minutes, supreme defense, and all the leadership intangibles they provide.
You do some of that in the aggregate through Francis Okoro and the increased role of others. But getting numbers like that from another guard like Goodwin or getting the passing ability/athleticism from a big like French is trying to search for needles in haystacks.
It seems most likely the Billikens will be searching for ether wing defending, shooting, or both. Saint Louis feels comfortable with their defensive system and current talent in terms of protecting the paint but is not as confident in their group right now in terms of defending more agile or shooting prone players.
I’ve talked about it before, but the transfer market is where the Billikens want to work from. They have youth right now, and the transfer portal provides opportunities to add veteran and experienced talent right away.
The list I’m hearing of specific names is short. But Travis Ford and staff are doing due diligence on dozens of players, and new names are coming in and out of the mix daily. St. Louis’ native and UMKC transfer Brandon McKissic has emerged as one of the off-season’s most prominent targets and was a player the Billikens coveted. According to my sources, though, all signs point towards him going to Kansas.
The program also had a virtual conversation with Mason Madsen –a freshman guard from Cincinnati–and Donovan Clay—a sophomore small forward from Valparaiso.
Mason Madsen had an up and down season at Cincinnati, coming off an injury early in the season. He’s most well regarded for his three-point shooting potential and his mentality for understanding how to fill a role in system basketball. He is a bit more of a mystery bag kind of prospect.
Donovan Clay, who is an Alton, Illinois native, we know more about. A team leader at Valparaiso, he started 33 of 35 games his freshman year on route to a first-team all-rookie team in the MVC, then started 24 of 26 games last season. Clay is very much a jack of all trades and brings a lot to the table in terms of things the Billikens could use. At 6’7, he brings a lot of size to the small-forward position. And while not exactly a high percentage three-point shooter or really all that of an efficient scorer, he does offer all the other things you’d want. He plays solid defense, rebounds the ball, is a great passer, and plays a ton of minutes.
In terms of players with a less publicized connection to Saint Louis, Trey Hollowell, a guard from Wofford, is a name I’ve heard floated with some mutual interest. He is a three-point specialist who can also act as the ball-handler in a pinch. He has played all four years for the Terriers and would be using his Covid year as a 1-year grad transfer.
Maybe the most fun name to think about is Minnesota Transfer Jamal Mashburn Jr, son of NBA star Jamal Mashburn. Travis Ford played with the senior Mashburn for two years while they were at Kentucky between 1991-1993, so a unique relationship exists. Mashburn Jr is a guard who improved significantly in all aspects of his game as the season went on, going from bench depth to vital member of the starting lineup by season’s end.
With as many transfers in the portal as there are now—nearly 900 in total and rising—players will be looking for landing spots quickly. The Billikens may need to act rapidly if they have a particular player in mind. It feels like Clay is the clubhouse leader, so to speak, if I had to guess who is most likely to end up at SLU. Still, I know from past conversations that the SLU coaching staff has a massive belief in the prestige of the player they feel they can draw in.
Fortunately for the Billikens. All the hard work of the last offseason in scheduling will end up paying off for next year’s team. Games against Memphis, Auburn, Boston College, San Diego State, and Southern Illinois are all on the docket waiting for them. Giving them literally twice as many notable non-conference games as this year.
The Billikens will have to prove themselves more next year and have plenty of opportunities to do so early in the year.
The central question moving forward on the schedule will be finding a Multi-Team Event to participate in. Essentially hosting their own this season after the Orlando Invitational was canceled, the Billikens could head back to Orlando to “make things right,” but that is just one of many options. Suppose Travis Ford can get the Bills into an event or tournament with a considerable group of opponents waiting for them. In that case, SLU could be looking at one of its best non-conference schedules.
It seems like these MTE’s and their scheduling have kind of been paused thus far and could make for an exciting summer of scheduling. The Orlando Invitational that the Billikens were scheduled to take part in was announced in November of the year before. It makes a lot of sense that the parties who organize and operate these events are looking to wait as long as possible to schedule them to avoid potential Covid related disasters concerning not being allowed to host fans or something of the like. But with vaccine distribution well underway and the light at the end of the tunnel getting brighter and brighter, it seems like those cautions may become less impactful.
The world is returning to normal. Let’s leave behind the disappointment of the past year and look forward to the future, and in the land of SLU Men’s Basketball, the future is still bright.
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!