Though I was surprised by the way it went down, I can’t say I was shocked by Saint Louis U rolling into Brooklyn to sweep four opponents and emerge from the borough with the 2019 Atlantic 10 championship trophy and a ticket to ride into the NCAA Tournament.
For several reasons, SLU’s players and coaches had a fighter’s chance to seize this tournament:
One, the A-10 is balanced. There are no supermen teams The tournament was available to any team that could get hot and swoon with confidence at the perfect time of the season. SLU — a hard-earned 10-8 in regular-season conference play — had a chance to dent and mangle the A-10 bracket.
Two, SLU went into the tourney with two strong foundations to lean on during tough times: defense and offensive rebounding. According to the metrics at KenPom, the Billikens are ranked 46th nationally in defensive efficiency, 26th in opponents’ Effective field-goal percentage, and 13th in offensive rebounding. Thirty six percent of SLU’s possessions have ended with a Billiken invading for an offensive rebound. That’s a staggering number.
These areas still matter. Just ask the four teams knocked down by the Bills — in succession: Richmond, Dayton, Davidson and St. Bonaventure.
Make it gnarly out there, and limit the easy baskets for opponents. And break their will by attacking the glass to yank rebounds, extend your offensive possession, and throw down second-chance points.
The SLU offense isn’t a work of art. But all of the missed shots and free throws don’t demoralize this team. And that’s the key to everything, really:
Saint Louis U. is one tough team.
And that’s why SLU is overcame so much this season to secure an invitation to the dance party. The SLU program is returning to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2014.
Saint Louis accomplished with a limited rotation that put a tremendous burden of minutes on the backs of starters Javon Bess, Jordan Goodwin, Hasahn French, Tramaine Isabell Jr. and DJ Foreman.
“You know, we are just a hard-playing physical aggressive basketball team, and sometimes I play six and sometimes I might play seven,” coach Travis Ford said.
“Yeah, I think our team’s been through a lot of adversity this year. You look at injuries, different things. I didn’t — I never did really buy into all that stuff. We only had like three or four players even returning off last year’s team.
“Because this all goes to answer your question: We’ve been through a lot of adversity that toughens you up a little bit. And when you’re picked first and you don’t really go through the league quite the way you wanted to, even through all that; we let some games go that maybe we thought we shouldn’t have.
“So you come to a tournament with something to prove, something to prove. You know, something to prove. When you’re out to prove something and you get a little taste of it, and when I mean a little taste, you beat Richmond. Then you beat Dayton. Now you feel like, wait a second, here. Now you want more of it.
“You don’t worry about being fatigued when you’re laser-focused and you’re focused on doing your job. You don’t have time to think about that and I don’t think these guys had time to think. I think they had more to prove. What we didn’t want, if we weren’t successful, that we look back and say, oh, we were tired. That wouldn’t have been an excuse.
“But when you’re focused on something, you don’t let outside things distract you. We’ve had enough things like that that have toughened us up I think a little bit.”
The adversity included the early-season transfer of prized freshman recruit Cart’Are Gordon who bolted for DePaul. (Um, DePaul?) There was a four-game conference losing streak that left the Billikens scrambling to regroup. This team — God bless them — can’t make free throws. Other issues that surfaced from time to time, but nothing could break SLU’s back.
So being the A-1o’s No. 6 seed meant nothing. In the first game the Billikens trailed Richmond by 11 points … and won by three. Next up, Dayton, and SLU eradicated a six-point deficit and won by nine. In the semifinals a seven-point Davidson advantage was erased in a rush of defense and rebounding, and SLU won by 23.
And in Sunday’s title game SLU never blinked after falling behind to St. Bonaventure by 15. At that point the Bonnies seemed quite comfortable — and were caught off guard by the Billikens’ second-half ambush.
“One thing I told (his players) early in the game, is ‘This is the best thing that could happen to us, them jumping out on us.’ I’m trying to keep our guys confident and ready to go. I’ve seen this a hundred times guys, this is fine — and let’s them get this out of their system. (The Bonnies) are playing unbelievable. They are jacked up. They are excited. They are a good basketball team, but our time will come. Our time will come if you just hang in there.”
After the Billikens’ second-half surge flattened St. Bonaventure, SLU hung on for a 55-53 victory.
The story of this tournament was SLU’s ferocity in the second half. And this, my friends, is what surprised me about the Bills’ conquest at Barclay’s Center. Shouldn’t a team that plays only six or seven guys be running out of gas when the heat is cranked up in the second half? By battling through four games in four days, shouldn’t SLU be depleted?
Not this team.
Here’s an awesome set of second-half stats, combined, from SLU’s four wins in the A-10 Tournament:
* SLU was outscored by 16 points in the first half of the four games. Second half: SLU was a plus 53 in points scored.
* Second-chance points: 49-26, SLU.
* Points in the paint: SLU, +24.
* Turnover differential: SLU, +18.
* SLU had a 32-10 assist-turnover ratio in the four second halves.
* SLU’s field-goal percentage in the four second halves: 48.6 percent.
* Opponents’ field-goal percentage in the four second halves: 30.6 percent.
“I was just hoping with he had enough in our tank,” Ford said. “I’m thinking, we’ve played three games, they have only played two and we’re the team that’s going to have to make this comeback. We’re going to have to dig, dig deep, and these guys were amazing. They dug deep. They found something and just said, we’re going to refuse to give into this.”
The Billikens, a No. 13 seed, open NCAA play against No. 4 seed Virginia Tech on Friday night in San Jose. It’s been a great run, but the Billikens don’t have time to get tired. They could probably run all the way to San Jose right now, and keep going, without stopping.
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