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Billikens Dispatch Explorers; Now Looking Ahead to the Bonnies

College basketball may be an amateur sport (at least the NCAA claims this is the case), but the Saint Louis Billikens put in a very professional effort in their first game in the A10 Tournament, dispatching the La Salle Explorers with ease, 71-51. Now the Billikens turn their focus to the St. Bonaventure Bonnies, who they hope to beat for the first time this season.

Francis Okoro asserted himself early and often down low, eventually finishing with 17 points, 13 rebounds and 2 blocks on 8-11 shooting. Fred Thatch Jr. contributed another well-rounded game with 10 points, 11 rebounds and 4 assists, in addition to his usual stellar defense. Gibson Jimerson continued his hot shooting stretch, scoring 19 points to lead the Billikens. While Yuri Collins only had 3 assists, he displayed a strong scoring mentality and finished with 13 points.

The Billikens lead by as much as 31 points in the second half, allowing the starters to get some vital rest in their first game of hopefully many to come. While the starters had to briefly re-enter the game with under 4 minutes left, they were able to take it easy towards the end of the game. In a conference tournament, every advantage matters, and the rest SLU was able to steal this game could go a long way in blunting the Bonnies’ advantage gleaned from the double-bye. However, it’s important to note that, last season, SLU cruised to a double-digit victory over UMass in their first A10 Tournament game, only to get run out of the gym 71-53 by the Bonnies in the semi-finals.

In its first matchup against the Bonnies this season, SLU got out to a double-digit lead early, before St. Bonaventure broke out a matchup 2-3 zone that stymied the Billikens both in that game and the subsequent matchup. Even since Mark Schmidt unleashed the zone, the Bonnies’ have had the Billikens’ number.

Despite SBU’s dominance over SLU, it’s difficult to beat a team three times in the same season, and this is the game that matters most for both teams. SLU has a chance to end the tournament hopes of the Bonnies’ fantastic five seniors and keep their own season alive. It’s a long season, and Mark Schmidt essentially uses a five-man rotation.

SLU needs to prioritize getting stops on defense, so they can run and get into their offense before Bona has a chance to get into their zone. SLU has excelled this year when they can get into their offense quickly, and it’s a huge reason they have the highest scoring offense in the A10 despite often struggling in half-court situations. To do this, SLU needs to defend, box out and rebound.

When the Bonnies set up their defense, the Billikens need to move the ball and Travis Ford needs a defined plan to beat it. The loss of Javonte Perkins hurts particularly hard here because Javonte’s length and shooting made him a perfect zone-breaker in the middle of the floor. Ford needs to use either Fred Thatch, with his strength, quickness and veteran decision making, or Jordan Nesbitt, with his athleticism and passing vision, in that spot. Neither are Perkins, but both could have an impact against Bona’s defensive scheme.

Perhaps most importantly, the Billikens need to take care of the basketball. In the two prior games against Bonaventure, SLU had 18 and 17 turnovers respectively. Yuri Collins had 8 and 6 respectively. Collins is one of the best point guards in the country, but turnovers have proven to be his biggest weakness. If he can shore that up tomorrow, SLU will have a much better chance at avenging themselves in DC. Don’t be surprised if Travis Ford plays Collins and DeAndre Jones together a lot. If the small backcourt can hold up defensively against Bona, Jones’ veteran presence and ability to take care of the ball could make a huge impact for SLU, as it did against VCU when he played 38 minutes and had 0 turnovers.

SLU needs Fred Thatch and Francis Okoro to continue their elite level of play and Gibson Jimerson to continue his hot shooting as well. Jimerson is vital as a floor spacer, and his ability to move off-ball and find pockets to score in is crucial. Bonaventure, wily veterans that they are, will try to grab and hold him, and if conference play is any indication, Gibson won’t get many calls. Tomorrow will be a big test for Jimerson as a number one option.

Thatch has been an elite rebounding guard lately, and needs to keep that up, while handling Jalen Adaway on defense most likely, and he needs to also continue to be an important secondary scorer for the Billikens. A tall order, but one that Fred has shown himself to be up to the task for.

Okoro has perhaps the toughest matchup, against Osun Osunniyi. Osunniyi is one of the few big men in the A10 who can match Okoro’s size and athleticism and is an elite defender. He’s also killed SLU on offense in the two matchups, missing a total of 3 shots against the Billikens this season. Okoro needs to find ways to produce on offense against Osunniyi, but more importantly, he needs to neutralize him on defense. Okoro has been an elite big in conference play, and he can really cement his status as one of the A10’s best with a strong performance tomorrow.

SLU has shown they are one of the most talented teams in the A10 and they are more than capable of beating the Bonnies. However, after being exposed by SBU twice this season, they’ll need to come out and show that they’ve addressed the problems Bona exploited if they want to avoid a 3-0 sweet at the hands of Mark Schmidt and his five seniors.


Jack Godar covers Saint Louis University for A10Talk. He is a St. Louis native who grew up rooting for SLU, but is a graduate of College of the Holy C...