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2023-24 Atlantic 10 Team Preview: Saint Louis

11. Saint Louis Billikens

Last Season: Saint Louis received another hard slap in the face to end their 2023. The Billikens were hopefuls for not only an at-large NCAA tournament bid but also the A-10 crown. Everything was in place for that to happen with a returning Javonte Perkins. Javon Pickett and Jake Forrester were key graduate transfers, and a couple of solid JUCO snags with everyone else returning. It was by far the best Saint Louis team in terms of talent since probably their 2013 A-10 championship unit. They even returned Yuri Collins who led the nation for the second consecutive year in assists — he just ended up doing so with a preposterous 10.1 dimes per game. 

Saint Louis performed in their out-of-conference games, contrary to the rest of the conference, and they had an extremely difficult path. They beat Providence, Drake, and Memphis, and played close contests against Auburn and Boise State. Sure, Rick Pitino’s Iona team blew them out 84-62, a blowout to Maryland (the Terps were awesome, so this one shouldn’t be held against them as much), and a silly loss to SIU-Edwardsville halted their hopes for a high NCAA tournament seed but they were still poised for an at-large. They sat atop the A-10 after an awesome 7-1 start to conference play as things were going swimmingly. 

And then January 31st happened… a white-hot Billikens team marched into “Rose Thrill” to face a Fordham program they’ve historically owned. The last time they let the Rams best them was 2017 — ironically enough this was Ford’s first year at the helm — in what could’ve been described as a “rag-tag bowl” for both sides. Much to everyone’s surprise, the Rams took down the first-place Billikens in a gritty 75-65 win this time. Fred Thatch was already out for Saint Louis — he was an important bench piece but the team was still far too talented to collapse in this game. Fordham shut down all five of the Billikens’ offensive options, allowed Francis Okoro to kill them inside, and forced four turnovers to one assist for Collins. 

The rest of the regular season saw SLU end with a 5-5 record (including the Fordham game), with two key games against VCU in which Ford’s team lost by eight and 12 points respectively. Still, they managed to tie for second. The quarterfinal game against George Mason went about as well as you could’ve expected with an 82-54 rout of the Patriots. VCU met them for the third time as they proceeded to thrust SLU into the offseason. The Billikens made a last-ditch effort but going 2-8 from distance in the second half did not fix a 90-78 final tally for this individually historic Billikens group. New talent now dawns the blue and gray, in what may be a rough couple of seasons coming up.

Returnees: Kellen Thames, Larry Hughe Jr., Sincere Parker, Terrence Hargrove, Gibson Jimerson, Phil Jones, Lamont Evans IV

Out: Yuri Collins, Javonte Perkins, Javon Pickett, Francis Okoro, Jake Forrester, Fred Thatch, Mohamadou Cisse, Nick Kramer

In: Cian Medley, Bradley Ezewrio (needs waiver), Djordje Curcic, Tim Dagler, Mike Meadows, Abdou Magassa, Bruce Zhang, Stef van Bussel

Potential Strengths: Who the hell didn’t leave this team? Gibson Jimerson and Terrence Hargrove are two of those guys who stayed on the roster for their fifth seasons. Jimerson is already a 1,000-point scorer in program history and arguably one of their best long-range snipers ever. His scoring leadership this season is paramount as Ford begins the transition process to a new age in Saint Louis. Ford’s calling card for years was a defense of enforcers and attacking the ball handler in all instances. Hargrove is one of the best glue guys in the conference with his physical nature on the wing, his toughness, and his gritty defense that fits this bill. Ford retained some lower usage guys such as Sincere Parker, who was a JUCO star but struggled in the conference with consistency. Parker this year will likely come off the bench, a role that fits his score-first style with a new catch: less competition for shots plays in his favor for more impact. 

Ford’s youth movement is full of hungry talent that has a very high ceiling down the road. Bruce Zhang comes over from China standing at 7’ tall. Reports say that he’s got a great foundation from fundamentals to IQ — the starting center spot is his to lose as of the writing of this preview. Stef van Bussel will also be in the mix, a 6’10” freshman hailing from Holland to help fill the spots left by Okoro and Forrester. Freshman point guard Cian Medley hails from the city of Camden, New Jersey which is a breeding group for some of the toughest players on the east coast. His high school scoring numbers are modest, but his value comes in his passing averaging over 6.6 in high school and 5 per contest on the EYBL circuit.  

SLU’s transfers are also fascinating: Bradley Ezewrio comes along after spending time between LSU and Georgetown to provide more veteran leadership in the middle, and again, another physical guy that fits Ford’s style on defense. The placeholder for now at point guard will be fifth-year Mike Meadows, a guy who has had three straight seasons of 10+ points per game with some decent assist totals. He also posts career shooting splits of 43/35/85 — a consistent floor general to help mentor Medley for a season. Tim Dagler, a 6’7” forward from Tulsa, should also make an impact defensively and assist in some rebounding inside. 

Since they joined the conference in 2005, Saint Louis has always bolstered outstanding depth and a tough-minded group centered around defense. That method has garnered them two conference tournament trophies and in 2013, possibly the best defensive A-10 team in the last 20 years or so. Ford’s time has been no exception with his 2019 championship group. He certainly has intriguing depth again but just a bit younger this time. 

Potential Weaknesses: Offense for Saint Louis is dependent on a few elements: pick and rolls, transition scoring, and guard drive-n-kicks for threes. All of that was staged by Yuri Collins who is now on the Golden State Warriors. It’s no secret: point guard play is a major concern for this group. Meadows isn’t the same defensive player (let alone player) that Collins was for this team, his advanced defensive numbers have dropped over his four seasons in college which is alarming for a defensive-minded program. His point totals are going to be on similar trajectories, but the passing won’t be there. Medley is hard to trust as a freshman right now, and some of their other point guard options are not exciting either.

The paint is also in serious question right now: Ezewrio is going to need his waiver as a multi-time transfer. As of this writing, Joe Bamisile of VCU had his waiver declined but Woody Newton of George Mason had his waiver processed. There is no reason to hold your breath if you’re Saint Louis for this waiver to go through, but it may not matter as Ford is almost forced to play Van Bussel and Zhang this season. Raw freshmen in the paint is one thing, but this year the A-10 has quite the lineup of big bodies inside. 

The Billikens were sloppy last season on defense which is very off-brand for this program. In 2021-22, they were 81st in adjusted defense (Kenpom). That number plummeted to 153rd in 2022-23. Francis Okoro, Hargrove, and Forrester had to carry that end of the floor for the Billikens last season. Fred Thatch going down didn’t exactly help things nor did Lamont Evans aid this issue by not playing. Dagler can fix some of the issues on the wings for defense but others need to step up on the defensive side — offense is already a serious project as they start anew with some unproven players and seldom used bench players from last season.

Outlook: Saint Louis is probably going to take a “break” from contending to rebuild the new foundation for the next wave of Billikens. It does stink how the previous era came to a close with all those awesome players Ford had grown over the years. But now he gets to build up another promising group, he just needs to thoughtfully manage the older group while nurturing the young players. There are simply too many unknown elements for them to be in the think of things this season, Saint Louis fans will have to brace for impact for this year at least.