About five games into this season, Saint Louis had left last season behind. And this was the problem. The Billikens hadn’t lost a game, but a group of seniors sensed the team was slipping on the intensely detail-oriented and ravenous approach that led to a conference championship and an NCAA tournament berth a year earlier.
The first two weeks of games featured four double-digit wins. But because of raised expectations, Saint Louis blues set in. A bothered group of veterans declared that there was much more the team could do, that the Billikens were not playing nearly as well as they could be. And so everyone needed to get their acts together.
“We knew that we weren’t the team we needed to be,” senior Dwayne Evans said. “And we had a couple conversations here and there about that. It kind of just had to kick in that nothing was going to be given to us, and that we were going to have a target on our back all year, and that our success last year didn’t mean anything for this year.”
Now, with a 12-game win streak propelling the Billikens to the top of the Atlantic-10 once again, it is clear nothing has changed. Yes, the coach is no longer an interim leader deftly handling a team wracked by loss, the roster features more youth and unproven commodities and the program’s staffing and resources continue to evolve. But Saint Louis still guards unrepentantly, boasting the most efficient defense in the nation according to kenpom.com, allowing just 86.8 points per 100 possessions. And it still wins, and it still can be a bracket-crumpling threat in March.
The two teams who defeated the Billikens so far? Wisconsin and Wichita State. The former was a purported Final Four contender that has three losses as of Wednesday. The latter hasn’t lost yet. “We want our kids and coaches to take their responsibilities seriously, but we don’t take ourselves too seriously,” coach Jim Crews said. “Just keep doing the best you can. That’s all we want.”
It is typical understatement from a man whose ability to steady the program for the past two years cannot be understated, which is why there was no debate about lifting the interim tag off Crews at the end of last year. The changes may not be sweeping, but the program has clear direction for the present and future.
Former coach Rick Majerus’ illness and eventual death on Dec. 1, 2012 was unavoidably unsettling. Once Saint Louis wrapped last season, though, the business of building a program had to begin anew. Crews and his staff shut down recruiting when Majerus got sick, recognizing what he called an “emotional, sensitive time” and the need to focus entirely on the roster on hand.
So, beginning in March, the Billikens coaches had to find some players. A five-person freshman class arrived (though only forwards Reggie Agbeko and Tanner Lancona so much as earned even two-star Rivals.com ratings). Crews also had to find a coach, with assistant Jim Whitesell leaving for St. John’s. So he tapped Calbert Cheaney, the former Indiana star whom Crews has known since Cheaney was a teenager. Less noticeable but not insignificant was the addition of a full-time video coordinator, Marcus Wilson, a job big-conference teams would consider a given but one previously handled by Saint Louis’ director of basketball operations.
Naturally, almost unconsciously in a way, Crews began to craft the program to make it his, in the now and in the future. Even if it seemed that it was already.
“I believe he started shaping it the day he took over as interim head coach,” athletic director Chris May said. “He was masterful a year ago in blending the process and the program that had been moving forward with coach Majerus and putting his touches on it. His amazing ability to blend the past with the present is what really separated our program and gave us chance to have a wonderful year. This season is just continuation of Jim putting his blueprint together and executing on that blueprint.”
Eventually he had a team to coach, of course, and he had to contend with newness. Five seniors comprised the bedrock, but the Billikens were short on experience everywhere else. And while Crews never sensed complacency creeping into a low-key group, he instinctively began workouts with a purpose that suited him as a coach and suited the mission to extinguish any traces of contentment.
Saint Louis returned to the fundamental techniques and details that brought it so much notoriety by the spring of 2013. Let’s not skip a step, as Crews put it.
“I guess that was the tone: Let’s keep going back to the basics,” Crews said. “Let’s get good at simple.”
Still, some alterations to the plan – part of the subtle evolution in Crews’ first season with the permanent gig -- were inevitable. The Billikens do not score it by the bushel, but senior forward Rob Loe noted there are “quite a few more offensive sets” this season, resulting in more variation and more places from which to score. The playbook isn’t done expanding, either; Evans said the team has sets just a couple weeks old and some that haven’t left the practice floor.
Even a well-caulked defense isn’t entirely the same as it was in 2012-13, when it ranked sixth nationally. “We do a few different things,” Evans said. “Coach Majerus never helped ball-side, but we kind of stunt and put a little bit more pressure on the ball and help-side defenders. On offense we play to each other’s strengths. (Crews has) kind of put in a couple wrinkles here and there to really get guys open shots and free driving lanes for some of our quicker guys. Just things like that.”
Crews’ most significant basketball-related challenge has been bringing along the inexperienced depth – “Anyone younger than a senior is young for us,” he cracked – and keeping them even-keeled when playing time hasn’t been consistent. Discerning the best fit and best rotations even now remains a work in progress.
“We’ve gotten a lot better with that,” Crews said. “But it’s taken us a while.”
In a way, it’s arguably Crews’ most critical duty to this year’s team and the ones to come. If Saint Louis is to maintain top-shelf performance annually, that untested group will be the core. The only non-seniors among St. Louis’ top seven in minutes played are sophomore Austin McBroom (22.9 a game) and junior Grandy Glaze (16.3). Among freshmen, Mike Crawford leads with just 110 minutes in 15 games.
Which is why occasionally, when the calendar fell just right, the Billikens coach has held practices exclusively for his underclassmen. No seniors at all, for a good 45 minutes or so. Just the group providing support this year, building camaraderie and connections for a time when much more is asked of them.
“He’s really moving the young guys along well," said Evans. "They’re picking up the little details that I don’t think I even picked up on until a lot later than them. That’ll pay off.”
For now the direction is familiar. Saint Louis will play two games against VCU but just one apiece with George Washington and Massachusetts. The push for another Atlantic-10 title may revolve around a few select nights, and it may not be resolved entirely until a trip to face the Minutemen on March 8.
Around town, even on planes, Saint Louis players received the usual back-patting for what they endured and what they achieved a year ago. If there was a lack of clarity on what they did to deserve all that early in this season, it has been rectified. So if the plan holds, urgency shouldn’t be a problem in a title race settled across three or four nights. Not when you consider the man leading the program for good now, and not if you consider that program to be his entirely. “In all reality, and I’m not trying to be facetious or anything -- we’re still all interim,” Crews said. “And you know what? You are too. We’re all interim. It’s almost a healthy thing if you really understand that. I’m not saying I don’t get lost in it sometimes and forget it. But all you can do is the best you can do. And then you have a chance. It doesn’t mean it works out the way you want. But I know if you don’t do things the right way, you don’t have a chance.”