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Majerus’ rebuilding program in full bloom at Saint Louis

Saint Louis coach Rick Majerus yells during a game this season. The Billikens play Memphis in the NCAA Tournament.

Saint Louis coach Rick Majerus yells during a game this season. The Billikens play Memphis in the NCAA Tournament. Photo by The Associated Press.

ST. LOUIS (AP) — There’s a stool in every corner of the Saint Louis gym so Rick Majerus can roam the building and do his scrutinizing comfortably.

The 64-year-old coach likes what he’s seeing these days.

Majerus was hired five years ago to elevate the school’s national profile, and his work is finally bearing fruit. The Billikens (25-7) are in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2000 as the No. 9 seed in the West with an opening-round matchup Friday against Memphis (26-8).

Majerus is making his 12th NCAA appearance in his 25th season, one year after enduring the first losing season of his career He’s done it without taking shortcuts, assembling his typical international-flavor roster that includes key contributors from Australia and New Zealand and is just as just as efficient in the classroom.

Seniors Brian Conklin and Kyle Cassity have already graduated with honors and are working on their MBAs. Sophomore forward Dwayne Evans and sophomore reserve forward Jake Barnett are 4.0 GPA students.

“If academics counted, we might be the national champion,” Majerus said. “They’re probably No. 1. What box don’t we check anymore? We’ve got great kids, our attendance was up 20 percent, we’ve won on the road, we play a great schedule, we’re in the tournament.”

Except for the Majerus connection, the Billikens are something of an unknown quantity entering the tournament.

The resume is impressive -- a second-place finish in the Atlantic-10 and games against five NCAA tournament teams, including a 73-68 victory at Xavier in January that ended the Musketeers’ 43-game home winning streak. All that and Saint Louis didn’t get a single vote in the final AP Top 25 poll.

It’s nothing new for a school seemingly forever forced to prove itself, and for a team that gained additional motivation minutes after celebrating the bid when a TV commentator picked Memphis to upset top seed Michigan State in the West final.

The Billikens lack a go-to star, but can go nine deep, make teams work for everything on defense and minimize mistake The 6-6 Conklin is the leading scorer with a 13.9-point average mostly off drives and going 141-for-178 at the line — 93 more free throws than anyone else on the roster. Ellis is a 40-percent shooter from 3-point range as the sixth man, going 6 for 9 against St. Joseph’s and 5 for 8 against Fordham in a pair of February games. The 6-5 Evans has seven double doubles.

The farther Majerus ventures out of town, the better he seems to do in recruiting. Cassity is the lone “local” player, from tiny Tamaroa, Ill., about 75 miles from St. Louis. Ellis is from Australia and 6-11 sophomore center Rob Loe is from New Zealand. Guards Kwamain Mitchell, Jordair Jett and Mike McCall Jr. are from Milwaukee, St. Paul, Minn., and Chicago, and Conklin is from Eugene, Ore., plus there’s a freshman from Greece.

Maybe that’s why this team has done so well with all the time it’s spending on the road as the westernmost member of the A-10.

“Last week was the second time in three weeks that I looked out my hotel room at the ocean,” Majerus said. “Wait until West Virginia goes to the Big 12, they’ll find out what the experience is like.”

Saint Louis has 119 fewer turnovers and 58 more steals than its opponents, who score just 57 points per game. It’s a team that can stick around, too, as Majerus proudly notes that in all but one of the losses the game was up for grabs until the final two minutes.

“When we don’t play gritty, coach Majerus definitely lets us know about it,” Conklin said. “That’s our M.O. We’re not the most athletic team so we’ve got to get every loose ball, we’re going to have to box out and let the ball maybe hit the floor and let a guard swoop in and get it.”

Majerus has produced a 13-win improvement one year after a dismal failure marked by suspensions to the two top players and an injury that sidelined the coach for a half-dozen games. The coach refers to that lost season as “team interrupted.”

“Everything that could have gone, went wrong,” Majerus said. “It’s all behind us now.”

Saint Louis started the season 6-0 with confidence-building victories over California, Oklahoma and Villanova, cracking the Top 25 for the first time since 1994. An upset loss to Loyola Marymount knocked the Billikens out of the poll the following week and they’ve never made it back. Players said they don’t notice.

“We’re a band of brothers in here,” Ellis said. “We don’t really listen to too much of the media, the only reason we watch is to see who we’re playing.”

Memphis appears to be a formidable opening-round opponent, going 20-3 since winning just six of its first 11. The Tigers enter the tournament with a seven-game winning streak, all by at least 12 points.

Cue the Majerus underdog talk.

Of Memphis: “Make them work for their shots, don’t get beat on the fast break, try not to beat yourself. If you take a bad shot, they’re off to the races.”

Of Midwest top seed Michigan State, the presumptive second-round opponent: “If we beat them, it would be the biggest upset of the whole tournament.”

First things first. Don’t forget to savor the trip to the tourney.

After a 2 1/2 hour practice bracketed by film study before and afterwards, chocolate cake was on the counter and there were boxes of donuts, too, for Saint Louis athletic director Chris May’s birthday. Conklin didn’t hesitate giving in to temptation.

At the celebration party the previous night, Conklin turned to Cassity and Ellis and wondered aloud why the wait had to be so excruciating.

“It’s surreal, it’s exciting, I’m nervous,” Conklin said. “Why didn’t we do this the first couple of years?”

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