ST. LOUIS – Back on Oct. 27, two weeks before their first game, the season seemed to be over for the St. Louis Billikens (17-6, 8-2 Conference). On that Wednesday evening, in an exhibition game against Rockhurst University, Javonte Perkins, the star of this St. Louis squad, suffered a torn ACL in his left knee thereby ending his season. Ever since, many have doubted the Billikens, while those same folks championed the St. Bonaventure Bonnies (12-7, 5-4 Conference) as the team to beat in the Atlantic 10. But the Billikens are now the team to beat, having won six in a row. They will host the Bonnies on Friday night as Bona comes limping into St. Louis, having lost three of their last five. Tip-off is slated for 9:00 p.m. on ESPN2.
Scouting the St. Louis Billikens
After Perkins was ruled out, the only person who kept any faith in his team was St. Louis Coach Travis Ford.
“[Before the season began,] I shared with [the team] some of the messages from people that I received after [Perkins] went down,” Ford told the media on Thursday. “[They were] saying things such as, ‘Sorry, you guys were supposed to be good this year.’ Nobody gave us a chance after [Perkins] went down but we stayed together. Guys like Gibson Jimerson had to diversify his game. Francis Okoro is playing more with the ball in his hands. Pretty much every player on our team, except for maybe Yuri Collins, is in a different role than they have played since being here.”
The Perkins injury may turn out to be a blessing in disguise for these Billikens. Players have stepped up across the board, especially Collins and Jimerson.
“Collins is the guy that we have to stop,” said Mark Schmidt, who is now in his 15th year coaching the St. Bonaventure Bonnies. “He’s the one that facilities everything. Those guys would not be getting the shots if it wasn’t for him. We [have to] do a decent job on him [defensively].”
Before the season, numerous pundits labeled St. Bonaventure’s Kyle Lofton as the best point guard in the Atlantic 10. But people slept on St. Louis and their roster. At this point in the season, Collins, not Lofton, is perhaps the best player in the conference.
Just look at these stats, courtesy of Jon Rothstein:
Yuri Collins during Saint Louis' six-game winning streak: 15.2 PPG, 10.2 APG, 5.8 RPG.
One of the least appreciated players in college basketball.
— Jon Rothstein (@JonRothstein) February 10, 2022
Last season, Collins averaged 5.1 points per game (PPG) and dished out 6.1 assists per game, which led the conference.
This season, his scoring has more than doubled as Collins now averages 11.6 PPG. He also averages 8.5 assists per game, which leads the entire nation. To put that in perspective, there are only five players in the NBA that currently average more than 8.5 assists per game–and games in the Association are eight minutes longer than those played in college. How Collins has shared the wealth has been nothing short of amazing.
But he’s emerged as a scoring threat too.
“A lot of it is his increased willingness to shoot the ball,” said Jack Godar, who covers the Billikens for A10 Talk. “Collins is looking to score more and that means defenses have to worry about five guys threatening to score on every possession. It’s given him a lot more ways to pick apart the defense.”
Look no further than last week, when St. Louis triumphed George Mason in double overtime. Collins scored 35 points and recorded 13 assists in the victory.
“Yuri is one of the most physically and mentally tough players at his size that I have ever coached,” Ford noted. “He has such a competitive nature. Yuri is an old-school point guard. Most want to score first, [but] he wants to win first. He loves to make players around him better. You don’t find that much anymore, and he’s refreshing to coach.”
For as well as Collins has played, he cannot do everything himself. Hence why Jimerson leads the team in scoring, averaging 17.2 PPG.
“Jimerson has emerged because he’s developed into an all-around player,” Godar added. “Formerly a three-point specialist, he can now score from all three levels and is deadly moving off-ball. He’s also really improved his defense, and that’s kept him on the floor much more than in the past.”
A season ago, Jimmerson made 39.4% of his three-point attempts while averaging 7.8 PPG. This year, he is the go-to guy as he is shooting 43.2% from beyond the arc.
But the Billikens have more than just Collins and a “go-to guy.”
“Francis Okoro and Marten Linssen have emerged as reliable big men,” Godar noted. “Jordan Nesbitt has been great on defense and provides a huge energy spark. Fred Thatch Jr. has been a fantastic glue guy. Add in Terrence Hargrove Jr.’s energy as a sixth-man role, and the Billikens have seven starting-caliber players who can make an impact.”
St. Louis has a solid group of players who can take this team deep into March. No team wants to face them in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. That is, of course, if they get there.
Although the Billikens are missing their star in Perkins, they are still playing tremendously. They have not shied away from playing hard-nosed and physical basketball either. The Billikens have always played tough for Coach Ford, which leads us to discuss this team’s biggest weakness: foul trouble.
According to KenPom, St. Louis ranks 293rd nationally in allowing its opponents to get to the free-throw line. Teams that have played the Billikens have attempted 35.2 free throws per game this season. Both Okoro and Linssen have struggled to stay out of foul trouble this year. Okoro averages 3.1 fouls per game while Linssen averages 2.8 fouls per game. Both have fouled out in three games thus far.
Meanwhile, the Bonnies rank 23rd in the country in that department, allowing its opponents to shoot just 22.6 free throws per game. Bona has committed the fourth-fewest fouls nationally to date.
Final Analysis and Prediction
If the Bonnies are going to win this game, they will not only have to attack the paint but also get St. Louis into foul trouble.
Good things happen to Lofton and Jaren Holmes when they can get inside. More often than not, they will either make an acrobatic shot or draw a foul and get to the free-throw line. The Bonnies are at their best when getting downhill.
“We got to get the ball below the foul line [on offense] and keep the ball above the foul line [defensively],” Schmidt remarked.
When the Bonnies settle for outside shots, that’s when they struggle. Aside from Dominick Welch, Bona does not have a reliable three-point shooter. And Welch has struggled at times from deep this year. But as a team, the Bonnies have made just 33.1% of their three-point attempts, which ranks 200th nationally, per KenPom.
Simply, Bona must get inside against St. Louis.
To add to that, the bench needs to play more of a role against this deep Billiken squad.
“[Quadry Adams and Karim Abdul Coluibaly] help give us a lift,” Schmidt said when asked about his bench. “Coulibaly did a really good job, especially offensively, getting some baskets [against Fordham on Tuesday]. We have had a hard time scoring inside and I thought he did a really good job of getting the ball inside, scoring, and creating double teams. That’s important. [Adams] is getting better [defensively]. Both those guys off the bench have to play well for us to be successful.”
For the second year in a row, the Bonnies rank dead last nationally in bench minutes played.
Moreover, Osun Osunniyi has had trouble scoring inside as his offensive game has seemed to regress. As Schmidt noted, Coulibaly has shown that he can finish inside. Why not give him more time? Or even pair Osunniyi and Coulibaly together? The Bonnies have not lived up to expectations, so why not try something different.
And finally, if the Bonnies are going to win, they are going to have to match St. Louis’ physicality.
“The team that is more physical and plays the best is going to win,” Schmidt remarked.
Right on, Coach.
But unfortunately, the Bonnies do not match up well against the Billikens. St. Louis has numerous outside shooters and two physical big men who attract double teams. Add Collins into the mix and this team is as formidable as any in the country. Hence why St. Louis will win their seventh game in a row.
St. Louis 74, St. Bonaventure 65
Jack Milko received his B.A. in Political Science from the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass. He is now working to get his M.A. in Sports Journalism from St. Bonaventure University. A lifelong fan of the Bonnies, Jack covers the team for @A10Talk. Follow him on Twitter for more Bonnies coverage at @Jack_Milko.
Featured image courtesy of St. Bonaventure Athletics.