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College Basketball

Saint Louis emerging as favorite mid-major sleeper pick

NEW YORK -- No coach is more qualified to identify what an under-the-radar Final Four team looks like than Butler's Brad Stevens.

He's led two teams on improbable trips to the national title game, busting brackets with a bruising defense, efficient offense and savvy play.

Stevens has also coached against two potential No. 1 seeds this season, Gonzaga and Indiana, beating both in the final seconds of each game. And after Saint Louis ground out Butler, 67-56, for the Billikens' third win over the Bulldogs this season, Stevens didn't hesitate to cast Saint Louis as a potential national title contender.

"They're in Gonzaga, IU range," he said. "No question."

As Saint Louis prepares to meet VCU in the Atlantic 10 title game on Sunday, it has cemented itself as a wise pick to travel deep in your NCAA bracket.

Horse players would consider Saint Louis "good value," as its resume is skewed and few cubicle denizens who plunk down $10 for the office pool will choose them.

Most mock brackets had the Billikens as a No. 5 seed, which could change if they win the conference title game. But a closer look at the Billikens, who have won 14 of 15 games, reveals they're playing more like a No. 2 seed. Two key changes have propelled Saint Louis to elite status in college basketball, as it is much better than its 26-6 record.

Saint Louis played without star guard Kwamain Mitchell until Dec. 28, meaning three of its six losses came without a guard who was All-Atlantic 10 third-team last year. His return has elevated the team to the highest echelon in college basketball.

"The biggest thing with Mitchell is that senior leadership," said Butler associate head coach Matthew Graves. "That adds a lot. It also allows other guys to play off the ball and he can facilitate more."

Mitchell's return has combined with the emergence of Dwayne Evans, a 6-foot-5 throwback forward who scored 24 points on 10 shots against Butler. Evans epitomizes the Billikens themselves, as he's not flashy but plays with a clinical efficiency. He's an understated star who has emerged as the go-to scorer on a balanced team.

Burly Butler forward Roosevelt Jones marveled about Evans, saying that he'd "never played against anybody that physical," a high compliment considering Jones plays like a rushing bull.

"From the first time we've played them to the last two times, they've got a guy now," said Butler assistant Michael Lewis, who has scouted the Billikens all three times for Butler. "Evans has kind of taken over that team."

Lewis estimated that Butler played only 10 to 15 possessions of zone this season. The Bulldogs doubled that Saturday, slowing down Saint Louis early. But eventually the Billikens patient offense and high skill level broke the zone. By the end of the game, Butler was worn out and blown out. Saint Louis's three victories over the Bulldogs came by an average of more than 10 points.

"They are a legitimate contender for the whole thing," Stevens said. "I believe that wholeheartedly. They've got eight guys that are all strong, big, physical, tough, smart, skilled basketball players, and don't need anything else if you're all together, and they've got it all."

The Billikens are a matchup nightmare in the NCAA Tournament for a bevy of reasons. They are skilled at all five positions, which will help them overcome any type of defense. But their biggest strength is their strength.

Stevens said that Butler hadn't seen a stronger team this season. That brute strength will become an asset once the tournament starts, as officials tend to call NCAA Tournament games looser than in the regular season. We saw snippets of that today at the Atlantic 10, as Stevens spent a good portion of the afternoon barking at officials as Saint Louis pushed the Bulldogs around the court. Butler is no stranger to pushing to the limits of fouling, as its aggressive style of play belies its cuddly mid-major demeanor.

Saint Louis' eight-man rotation has just one underclassman, and the roster is not afraid to impose its physicality on opponents. It's something that could help push the Billikens deep into the tournament.

"They are men," Stevens said.

There's an emotional element that will surely be the defining Saint Louis storyline. The Billikens are led by interim coach Jim Crews -- an X's and O's savant considered one of the game's elite basketball minds -- because of the failing health of former coach Rick Majerus this summer. Majerus passed away in December and the players served as pallbearers carrying his coffin out of the church.

"They've had the good, the bad and the ugly and the tragic of all the things that have gone on," Crews said. "They've stuck together, stayed the course and haven't gotten too high, haven't gotten too low."

When the NCAA brackets come out on Sunday, Saint Louis has a high-upside with a seed that will be far too low. Brad Stevens knows exactly what that looks like.

"That team could go through a Final Four with multiple different matchups," said Stevens, who looks at Saint Louis and sees a glimpse into his own past.

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