Billikens a confident No. 4 seed
Sunday, March 17, 2013
ST. LOUIS — Saint Louis learned of its No. 4 seed in the Midwest Regional at a Best Buy store in Secaucus, N.J., just before the triumphant team flight home after adding the Atlantic 10 Tournament championship to its impressive resume.
New York-area traffic, you see.
“It was slow getting through Manhattan and as we were getting closer to the time, we wanted to make sure the team could watch the selection show,” athletic director Chris May said in a telephone interview from a stop in Columbus, Ohio. “They turned their big screens on for the Billikens and couldn’t be more welcoming. There was a roar in the store when our name came up.”
Good news in hand, the Billikens (26-7) are NCAA-bound for the second straight season under interim coach Jim Crews after ending a 12-year absence while led by the late Rick Majerus. They’re on a roll heading into Thursday’s game against New Mexico State (24-10) at San Jose, Calif., having won 15 of 16, and 11 of them by double digits.
“A team like this, I don’t think there’s a limit on how far we can go,” A-10 Tournament MVP Dwayne Evans said. “We’ve got a lot of special pieces that work well together.”
It starts with the no-nonsense man at the top.
Crews thought he was going to be a one-year fill-in when Majerus called just before the 2011-12 season searching for an assistant. He was a presence on a No. 9 NCAA seed that knocked off Memphis and pushed top seed Michigan State to the wire, and took over in August while Majerus was hospitalized in California.
Now Crews among the candidates for national coach of the year, although he’ll carry the title of interim coach until the season ends with no guarantees past the NCAA run. He doesn’t seem to mind that a bit.
“We’re going to continue to focus on this team and not have any distractions,” May said. “I couldn’t be more proud and honored about what Jim and the staff have done.”
He also balks at the notion of Saint Louis is embarking on a memorial mission, reflecting his respect for Majerus and also recognizing it could easily backfire.
“It would be great to say ‘Hey, this is for Rick. This is for Rick. This is for Rick,’” Crews said after the A-10 title game. “But, you know, what if we lose? I just don’t buy into that.”
Crews also believes such a mission might in some ways cheapen the Majerus legacy.
“Rick’s life and friendship and his coaching and the relationships that he had and the people that he touched — it’s a lot bigger than winning a game or winning a championship or having a good year,” Crews said.
The school’s first conference title team since 1957 and first conference tournament championship title since 2000 has the typical Majerus international flavor with starters from New Zealand and Ontario and a sharp-shooting Australian with a shock of blue paint in his hair for a sixth man.
The key is one of the stingiest defenses in the NCAA.
Saint Louis led the conference by allowing just 58 points per game and contests everything. Saint Joseph’s shot a season-worst 32.6 percent, VCU scored its 10th point Feb. 19 with 4:08 to go in the first half and Dayton coughed up 21 turnovers that produced 30 points on the opposite end.
There’s no shortage of options on offense beyond Evans, the leading scorer and rebounder. Kwamain Mitchell had 19 points in the A-10 title game and is just one of three lightning quick guards with Jordair Jett and Mike McCall Jr. also good at penetrating.
Blue-haired Cody Ellis, who is from Perth, Australia, is the top 3-point threat and snapped out of a prolonged shooting slump in the A-10 final. Rob Loe, 6-11 from Auckland, New Zealand, can hit the long-range shot or score off a drive. The season really took flight after Crews inserted the third international starter, 6-6 sophomore Grandy Glaze, who provides energy in limited minutes.
“I think we’re going to scare some people with matchups,” Ellis said.
New Mexico State is also making its second straight NCAA appearance. The Aggies were also a No. 13 seed last season, losing to Indiana.
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