Different coach or not, Majerus back in the tourney once again
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- When his St. Louis Billikens knocked off favored Memphis on Friday night, Rick Majerus was left with only a few hours to get ready for top seed Michigan State.
Majerus bemoaned that, these days, he couldn't put in the kind of film and prep he would have years ago; instead he would rely more on his assistants' work than pulling his own all-night film session.
"Sometimes," he said mournfully, "I get disappointed that I'm not the coach I used to be."
Before we break out the violins for Majerus, consider where he is. Back in the round of 32. Doing the kind of coaching he always has.
If it's deep into the first week of the tournament, it's Majerus time. Twelve times Majerus has taken a team -- usually an undervalued, lower seed -- to the NCAA tournament. Eleven times his team has made it to at least the second round, knocking off a big boy along the way. Majerus did it at Ball State and nine times at Utah. Only once -- with his 2002 Utah team -- was Majerus bounced in the first round.
Of coaches with more than ten first-round wins in the modern tournament era (since 1985), Majerus' .917 winning percentage is tied for fourth best, with John Thompson of Georgetown, trailing only Roy Williams (1.000), Dean Smith (1.000) and John Calipari (.929).
Now Majerus is working his magic with the Billikens.
A Billiken is a flat-faced good luck charm. But if things go right today against Michigan State, St. Louis University may have to adopt the round visage of Majerus as its new symbol.
Some fans already have. As St. Louis completed its victory over Memphis -- its first tournament victory since 1998--- a fan held up a poster. It depicted Majerus' face pasted atop Superman's body under the words "SLU-PERMAN."
Ah, Majerus joked, it was probably drawn up by a restaurant owner -- maybe the guy from St. Louis' famous Italian joint, LoRusso's -- showing thanks for his excessive patronage.
It's a trademark Majerus tactic: fall back on a joke about food or weight or bypass surgery if someone wants to probe too deeply into his coaching tactics and longevity.
Majerus, 64, likes to paint himself as old school, unversed in twitter and social media, confused by young people who want to look at screens. And it's true that young athletes have changed since the days when Majerus was Al McGuire's young assistant at Marquette.
But the game really hasn't changed.
Majerus' teams still win the same way, with hard work and fundamental defense. When Majerus worked for ESPN during his four-year break from coaching all he wanted to talk about was defense and was eager put together a film montage to illustrate his point.
"They called me aside and said, 'Look, you're a good guy, you really like the game, but we're not going to show somebody in their stance on defense on SportsCenter,'" he said. "I loved the worldwide leader, but that's the way the world goes."
At St. Louis, Majerus has recruited the kind of players who buy in, guys like forward Brian Conklin whose primary joy comes from frustrating more athletically gifted players.
"We're boxing out a big (man) every time, picking up cheap fouls because it's frustrating them," Conklin said. "You know what kind of toothpaste they use because you're in so close. It's a fun defense."
Expect more of the same against Michigan State.
"We're going to muck up the game and play dirty basketball," he said. "It's going to be fun and we're excited."
Coaching is different than it used to be. Though Majerus stressed on Saturday that he recruits good kids that usually don't come with conduct issues, he has had to deal with such problems recently. Last year, St. Louis went 12-19, in part because its top two players were suspended after an investigation into sexual assault accusations. Though charges were never filed, the players were suspended by the university and had to reapply for reinstatement. Majerus is on the record as saying he felt they were suspended unjustly. One player, Kwamain Mitchell, is back with the team and led St. Louis on Friday night with 22 points, including three enormous three-pointers to keep his team in the game.
The scandal wasn't the only rough part of last season. Majerus' lost his beloved mother to cancer -- she was the catalyst behind his decision to quit USC four days after taking the job. He wanted to be closer to her. In addition, Majerus -- who left Utah for health reasons -- had another medical issue, developing an infection after being cut on a scorer's table.
Majerus said he can't be as physical on the court as he used to be, when he would take charges and set screens. He can't recite verbatim what he saw on film and sometimes he mixes up a play in the huddle. He said he's been tested for Alzheimer's and was assured that he didn't have any symptoms. He's just getting older. And he claims, isn't quite the coach he used to be.
Believe that at your peril.