's experience could help contribute to a surprise St. Louis run come March. (Ezra Shaw
Before answering the question of who this year’s Wichita State might be, we should probably make sure we know who last year’s Wichita State was. Gregg Marshall’s eventual national semifinalists overachieved (relative to preseason expectations) their way to a No. 8 seed, but even then, the Shockers were largely ignored as a candidate to reach the Sweet Sixteen, let alone the Final Four. Well, four NCAA tournament wins later -- and a competitive Final Four loss to eventual champion Louisville -- and the Shockers label of “solid mid-major” was due for a major upgrade. So, what team could be in line for a similarly eye-opening run in the 2014 Dance? Three teams stand out as especially viable candidates, but the preseason buzz surrounding Harvard and Boise State has them sporting a trendiness that wasn’t circulating in Wichita this time last year. The Saint Louis Billikens, however, enter the year a bit more under the radar. Their preseason aspirations may be slightly elevated from those of the Shockers’ 12 months ago, but after disappointing pundits as a sleeper pick in last season’s tourney, SLU could be bound for a quiet, productive season that leaves them poised for a March Madness run that nobody sees coming.
Like Wichita State last season, Saint Louis comes into this year not expected to match the success of last season’s wildly successful campaign. Despite that authoritative early dismissal (Oregon defeated the Billikens by 17 in the Round of 32), SLU swept the A-10 regular season and tournament crowns en route to earning a No. 4 seed. These Billikens will be hard-pressed to match the 28 games won by that group, but the nucleus does return mostly intact.
The graduation of seniors Kwamain Mitchell and Cody Ellis surely hurts, but back is a quartet of experienced, productive seniors. Dwayne Evans, Jordair Jett, Rob Loe, and Mike McCall were all key contributors a season ago; their collective experience is unmatched in the Atlantic 10. The Saint Louis identity has remained consistent year-to-year for a few seasons now; recapturing the grinding toughness of those teams should not be hard with those four returning. Finding a few more options at the offensive end would be nice, but the beauty of last year’s Saint Louis team is that no one player shouldered the load offensively. All of those key returnees are prime candidates for increases in usage rates and overall contributions -- but ones that don’t come at significant expense of efficiency.
In what is an Atlantic 10 full of question marks this season, Jim Crews has to be happy in the proven production he has returning. Equally pleasing for Crews may be the target that VCU will wear on its back all season. The Rams were a nearly unanimous choice to win the league, a notation that should allow the Billikens to fly under the radar once again. SLU is everything that VCU is not -- methodical, patient, and definitively unsexy. With the interim coach tag now removed, Crews himself should also be feeling a little more established in his post. The death of former head coach Rick Majerus may have served as a catalyst for the team's surge a season ago, but the year had to be emotionally exhausting for Crews' squad as a result. Majerus’ fingerprints are still all over this team, but with a year to heal and the spotlight of that tragedy slowly drifting away, this team should find it easier to focus on the task at hand on the court.
With no other team looking the part of a challenger to VCU -- at least in the preseason -- the Billikens seem a safe bet to rack up a good number of A-10 wins and work their way back to the NCAA tournament in that No. 6 through No. 10 seed range. In typical Saint Louis style, their winning should come with little pomp or fanfare. That under-the-radar approach, paired with the disappointment of last season’s early exit, should leave experts a little gunshy when it comes time to pick the Billikens for a March run. But as one of the most experienced teams in the country, this Saint Louis team will be operating off of an identity forged long ago, behind leaders who have seen the stage before. Wichita State wrote the script a season ago. The screenplay may need a couple of tweaks for a new team to star in it in 2014, but Saint Louis could prove a natural fit for next March’s starring role.
Bennet Hayes (@hoopstraveler) is a Rush the Court national columnist.
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