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SLU Preview: NCAA Tournament or Bust

Repeat after me: NCAA Tourney or bust.

We stand on the brink of one of the most anticipated seasons of Billikens basketball in recent memory, after what feels like one of the longest off-seasons in the history of off-seasons. But now we’re a mere four days away from tip-off. After years of good Billiken teams under Travis Ford that have lacked just enough juice to make the NCAA Tournament, plagued by COVID outbreaks (2019-2020 and 2020-2021) or season-ending injuries before the season even started (2021-22), these Billikens look poised to take the next step and gain a coveted at-large bid.

You know the basics: SLU boasts arguably the best point guard in the entire country in the nation’s leading assister Yuri Collins (11.1 ppg, 7.9 apg), returns Gibson Jimerson (16.3 ppg with 42% shooting from deep), Francis Okoro (10.8ppg, 8.1 rpg, analytics darling) and Fred Thatch Jr. (9.3 ppg, 5.5 rpg) coming off breakout years, gets Javonte Perkins back after a torn ACL (17.1ppg in 2020-2021), adds Missouri transfer Javon Pickett (119 games played in SEC, 11.1 ppg last season) and Temple transfer Jake Forrester, and boasts additional firepower off the bench with Terrence Hargrove Jr. and JUCO transfer Sincere Parker, one of the best scorers in junior college last season.

This is a make-or-break year for Travis Ford. He has a team with big time NCAAT aspirations and a ton of talent. Ford cannot let that fate befall this year’s team. Ford’s done such a great job recruiting and developing players at SLU, and he’s had the aforementioned inordinate amount of bad luck. However, his Billikens developed a penchant for blowing leads last year, which never helps a fanbase’s patience with a coach.

This year, he could either take SLU to the next level—securing a bid and potentially making noise in the tournament—or he could miss the tournament and hugely disappoint. If the latter occurs, it sure starts to look like a pattern in the Travis Ford era and his seat might get a little warm. Ford can’t afford another year of close but no cigar. However, Ford and the Billikens have accumulated a large amount of preseason hype for a reason. Travis Ford has built a strong culture at SLU and through his recruiting and player development, he has positioned himself with a very strong chance to deliver a special season at the Chaifetz Arena

These Billikens are talented, old, strong and tough. Getting Javonte Perkins back should help SLU close out the end of games. They’re widely considered a top 2 team in the A10 and are sniffing around preseason top 25 rankings. However, the Billikens aren’t perfect.

Perhaps the most glaring hole is the lack of secondary ball-handlers. Last year, DeAndre Jones proved to be a solid presence as a backup point guard. This year, the Billikens will rely on Fred Thatch Jr., who is a great glue guy, ferocious rebounder and defender and a sneakily effective scorer, but nowhere near a true point. DeAndre Jones played 38 minutes against VCU last season and was instrumental in bringing the ball up the floor when the Rams took away Yuri Collins. Who on the Billikens can step up in that role this year? It’s not clear if there’s anyone who is capable of doing so.

In addition to the lack of ball-handling, the Billikens are not the quickest team outside of Yuri Collins. It’s full of athletic, powerful wings such as Pickett, Hargrove, Parker and Thatch, but teams with multiple shifty guards could give the Billikens problems. Javon Pickett will be the X-factor on defense, likely to pick up the other team’s best player more often than not. If his defense is as advertised, that would be a huge boost for SLU.

SLU also needs to be better at boxing out. Francis Okoro is an elite rebounder, but he will need help from his wings and guards to help prevent giving up offensive rebounds. Sincere Parker is a strong rebounder for a guard, which may help keep his scoring on the court despite his defense being subpar. Fred Thatch can be an excellent rebounder as well. It’s crucial that the Billikens are dominant on the boards and it will need to be a team effort rather than solely the responsibility of the Billiken big men.

Though not without their flaws, this Billikens team also has the makings of an elite offensive squad. Yuri Collins is the best conductor in the nation and he has even more weapons to play with this year. Gibson Jimerson exploded in his third freshman year, and now the alleged redshirt sophomore gets to build off that campaign in a season where teams can’t afford to lavish the same amount of attention on him as last year. Why can’t they? Because now Javonte Perkins is back as a threat. Though it may take the STL native some time to get healthy, he’s still maybe the best pure scorer in the A10 and teams can’t leave the 6’6 wing alone. Sincere Parker adds even more scoring punch. One of the best scorers in all of JUCO, the Moberly product has deep range and can score on all three levels. Between Jimerson, Perkins and Parker, SLU has three elite shooters.

*TV commercial pitchman voice* “But wait, there’s more!” Collins has Francis Okoro in the pick-and-roll, where they are one of the best duos in the nation. Okoro is a prime candidate to average a double-double, and consistently puts up some of the best advanced stats in the A10, in no small part due to Collins’ dimes. Collins also will be looking to show NBA scouts an improved scoring arsenal, building on last season when he doubled his scoring average while shooting 36% from deep.

Fred Thatch Jr. will look to continue his momentum from a strong showing in conference play, when he racked up multiple double doubles and emerged as one of the Billikens’ better scoring threats. The 6’3, 215 Thatch is a load to deal with, often playing as an undersized 4 man due to his strength and athleticism despite his height. Terrence Hargrove will provide spot-up shooting and his signature rockstar athleticism and spark. Jake Forrester has impressed as a veteran big after transferring in from Temple and will be especially valuable rebounding. Lastly, SLU’s freshman class of Kellen Thames, Larry Hughes Jr., Nick Kramer (an alumnus of arguably the best high school in the world and definitely the best high school in STL), and Momo Cisse all have a lot of promise. Don’t expect any of the freshmen to get much run, but out of the quartet, Thames and Hughes Jr. will probably play the most.

It’s an exciting time to be a Billiken fan (and also a little stressful because, well, SLU), and the season is finally right around the corner. I, for one, can’t wait.

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...