The Saint Louis University Billikens come into Washington D.C. as a team that at times has looked like one of the best squads in the country, but one that has also struggled mightily to put together a full 40 minutes of good basketball against a good team. If the Billikens want to go dancing, they must string together 160 minutes of good basketball in four straight days, starting tomorrow against La Salle.
After losing Javonte Perkins’ to a season-ending torn ACL in an exhibition game, Travis Ford and the Billikens exceeded post-Perkins injury expectations to finish with a 21-10 record, including a 12-6 record in conference play, a very stellar record good for the 5 seed in the conference tournament. However, the Billikens have dropped several games in exceedingly frustrating fashion, holding double digit leads but subsequently losing to UAB, Belmont, Auburn, Richmond and St. Bonaventure.
SLU’s very good season has been frustrating because the team showed it was capable of being in position for an at-large NCAA Tournament bid and an A10 Tournament double-bye. Instead, the Billikens need to win 4 games in 4 days, just as they did in 2019, if they want to make the NCAA Tournament. The good news is they clearly have the talent to do so. The bad news is they have not shown the consistency needed to pull off such a feat all year. In order for the Billikens to play four games of consistent, winning basketball, here are some things they need to do:
Yuri Collins Needs to be the Man
Yuri Collins has been the best point guard in the A10 this year, leading the entire nation with 8 assists per game and SLU needs the All-A10 First Teamer to be at the height of his powers. Collins’ emergence as a scorer has been a huge reason why SLU was able to win more than 20 games despite losing one of the best players and scorers in the country in Perkins. After averaging 5.3 points per game last year, Collins has doubled his scoring average to 11.7 points per game, including a 24-point showing against Richmond at home and his instantly legendary 35 point game in the double OT thriller against George Mason.
When Collins is not afraid to shoot the ball, SLU’s offense opens up significantly. It’s particularly important that Collins not shy away from taking the three. He’s shooting 42% from deep in conference play but is only shooting 1.8 attempts from behind the arc per game. Collins has game-changing potential solely as a passer, but when he makes himself a scoring threat, SLU is that much more difficult to stop.
Shoot The Three!
This one is pretty simple. SLU is making 38% of its three pointers, good for second in the conference. They only shoot 18.3 threes per game, good for tenth in the conference. SLU needs to shoot a higher volume of threes to capitalize on their accuracy. Collins’ willingness to pull the trigger plays a big role in this, but Gibson Jimerson is the true key.
Jimerson is the Billikens’ only true volume shooter. In conference play, Jimerson is shooting 44% from deep on 5.8 attempts per game. After looking like he’d lost his legs a bit towards the end of the season, Jimerson finished the season by scoring 22 against Rhode Island and 19 against VCU. Jimerson has done a fantastic job of becoming the first option for the Billikens this year and SLU needs to continue to get him the ball in great shooting areas. He can score in buckets, and the gravity he holds as a shooter opens things up for Fred Thatch Jr.’s drives and Francis Okoro on the low block.
Play with Pace
SLU is one of the most athletic teams in the league, but they’ve struggled against set defenses, particularly zones. St. Bonaventure broke out a 2-3 matchup zone that effectively neutralized the Billikens and other schemes have similar kneecapped SLU. One way to beat those zones? Don’t let them get set up. SLU needs to bear down on defense, grind out tough stops, box out, and then once they get the ball, get into their offense before the defense can get set up. When SLU does this, the offense has much more flow and Yuri Collins can really dissect the defense to get his teammates quick, easy buckets.
Continue to Get Elite Play from Thatch and Okoro
Fred Thatch Jr. has emerged as a completely indispensable playing in conference play this year. After struggling throughout much of nonconference play, Thatch has averaged 11.5 points per game and 6.1 rebounds while shooting 45% from deep and playing his usual elite defense. Acting almost as a power forward, the 6’3 Thatch has played elite bully-ball, getting to the hoop with ease, tearing down absurdly athletic rebounds and knocking down open shots. He’s been the X-factor for SLU and if he continues his strong play, it will be very difficult to knock off the Billikens.
Okoro has emerged as one of the best bigs in the A10 as well. After missing layups and dunks in astoundingly creative ways to start the year, the Oregon transfer has emerged as a reliable pick-and-roll partner for Yuri Collins, a strong free throw shooter, elite rebounder and great low-post defender. In conference play, Okoro is averaging 12 points a game and 8 rebounds. Okoro is a physical specimen and very few A10 big men can handle his athleticism, as long as he avoids foul trouble. The advanced stats back up Okoro’s strong play.
Francis Okoro A-10 rankings:
True shooting %: 5th
Player efficiency rating: 2nd
Win shares: 8th
Win shares per 40: 1st
Box +\-: 7th
Offensive rating: 2nd
D rating: 9th
Total rebound %: 2nd
Put him on my @A10MBB All-Antlantic Team. Stupid underrated.
— AntlanticTeen (@AntlanticTeen) March 8, 2022
Thatch and Okoro will need to continue to step up their game in DC if they want to be cutting down the nets on Sunday.
Take Advantage of Depth
With Collins, Jimerson, Okoro, Thatch, Jordan Nesbitt, Terrence Hargrove, Marten Linssen and DeAndre Jones, SLU has 9 guys who could probably start for most A10 teams. If they are going to win 4 straight games in 4 days, they’ll need all that depth. Nesbitt, the former top 50 recruit, has been inconsistent, but is wildly talented and can take over a ball game. SLU will need to get impact plays from him on both sides of the ball. Hargrove can bring an injection of athleticism and spot-up shooting. Linssen has impeccable fundamentals and is a fantastic pick-and-roll player, giving SLU a 2-headed monster at the 5 spot between him and Okoro. Lastly, DeAndre Jones has seen his minutes vary from game-to-game, but Central Arkansas’ all-time assist leader is a steady hand at the point, as seen in last game against VCU, where he played 38 minutes and had 0 turnovers. If SLU is going to make noise in DC, every one of those 9 players has a big role to play to make it happen.