Three years into his job as head coach at Saint Louis University, it's clear that this gig might be the toughest of the five coaching jobs Rick Majerus has held since he broke into the game as a student assistant on Al McGuire's Marquette staff nearly 40 years ago.
The Billikens brought 10 scholarship players to the University of Illinois-Chicago's quaint little Pavilion for last weekend's Chicagoland Invitational: six freshmen and four sophomores. Physically, they resembled a JV squad scrimmaging the varsity in last Friday night's 65-54 loss to an Iowa State team of grown men who were bigger, stronger and deeper at every position.
"We knew they'd be tough -- they've got a lottery pick (6-foot-10 Craig Brackins), and we didn't match up," Majerus said. "We have to view this as a learning opportunity."
Majerus couldn't fault his team's effort: The Billikens are tough, overachieving kids who defend, hit the boards, share the ball and compete for 40 minutes. But their physical limitations leave them almost no margin for error, especially on a night when they miss 15 of 16 three-point shots and commit 15 turnovers.
It was more of the same on Saturday: Saint Louis shot 33.9 percent from the floor and missed 14 of 17 three-pointers in taking a 64-52 spanking from a veteran Notre Dame team that was in no mood for frivolity after losing to Northwestern on Friday.
"We missed 41 shots, and I'd say 21 of them were good, makeable shots," Majerus said. "You run your sets, you get good shots and then you don't make them, you get worn down psychologically, not to mention physically going against older, stronger guys. But that's no excuse. We've got to learn how to play these games."
To that end, Majerus never stopped teaching over three days in Chicago, laying atypically low in one of his favorite cities. The Billikens practiced twice on Thanksgiving Day. Former NBA All-Star Terry Porter, a Majerus friend from Milwaukee, addressed the team after its Friday morning shootaround. There was a walk-through at the hotel after the Iowa State game, and another on Saturday morning before the Billikens played Notre Dame. Several times officials had to break up their huddles because the game was about to resume before Majerus was finished talking.
"What's the hurry? Were they double-parked?" he wondered.
Majerus has some flinty pieces in his starter kit. Sophomore Brian Conklin, a hard-nosed 6-6 forward, would be a beast if he were a bit taller, and fellow sophomore Willie Reed is an active, committed presence inside despite a 6-9 frame that's as stringy as dental floss. Meanwhile, some good recruits are on the way as Majerus seeks to follow the blueprint that worked pretty well at Utah: Install a system, find tough, smart players who buy in, upgrade the talent level, play into March.
Not that it's easy. Saint Louis' academic standards limit the recruiting pool, and its odd Atlantic-10 membership is a geographic mismatch and a logistical nightmare -- the Missouri Valley makes a lot more sense. But Majerus is as committed as ever. He'll never be described as trim, but he looks pretty good and says he feels fine, primarily because he's doing what he loves to do, what he was put on this Earth to do: coach.
"I like these guys, I really do," he said as he wound down after an 0-2 tournament showing. "They're good kids, they work hard, and they really want to learn and get better. You can't teach them to be bigger or stronger or older, but that will come. And when it does, we've got a chance to be pretty good."
So, surprisingly, does tournament winner Northwestern, which subdued Notre Dame with an active zone defense, then beat Iowa State with an ever-changing defensive scheme and the hot hand of MVP John Shurna, a high-energy sophomore forward whose choirboy looks and build belie an audacious, attack-the-basket style that produced 48 points in two games.
The Wildcats are like the only team in the world that has never been to the NCAA tournament, and realistic hopes of getting there this year seemed dashed when star senior Kevin Coble (foot) and top reserve Jeff Ryan (knee) suffered season-ending injuries the week before the opener. Sure enough, they were a dispirited-looking bunch when Butler picked them apart at home on Nov. 18, but they were over feeling sorry for themselves a week later, winning their first tournament of any kind since 1993.
That's good news for coach Bill Carmody, the former Princeton whiz who has only one NIT appearance to show for nine previous seasons in Evanston. The administrators who hired him are long gone, and dynamic young athletic director Jim Phillips looks at dynamic, bowl-bound young football coach Pat Fitzgerald and wonders why basketball can't enjoy comparable success.
Even without Coble, there might be enough talent and toughness on the Northwestern roster for a breakthrough season.