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Picked 1st in the preseason polls, Billikens have lots of talent, long way to go

Expectations for the Saint Louis Billikens are high this season, and at A-10 Media Day, we got a view both of just how high those expectations are and how far the Billikens have to go to achieve them. The Billikens were picked to finish first, tallying 15 first place votes. In comparison, Saint Joseph’s was picked to finish second and only received 4 first place votes. The Billikens are clearly the consensus favorite to win the league, but with only 4 returning players and 7 newcomers, they still have a long way to go before the team is ready for the season.

“I’m glad we don’t play tomorrow, but we can get there,” head coach Travis Ford said. Luckily for Ford, 3 of those returnees have emerged as strong leaders for the team.

“Javon Bess leads by example every day. He’s up at 6am getting shots up in the gym every day, plays hard every single second, every single player on our team knows that Javon Bess is all about winning,” Ford said. “Jordan Goodwin is more of a vocal, rah-rah guy who is a very good leader of his own, and Same thing with Hasahn French. Hasahn gets it because everyone really just likes Hasahn, he plays hard all the time, they know what he’s about. Those are the three guys were leaning on to be the leaders of this basketball team.”

Throw in grad transfers Tramaine Isabell and Dion Wiley, and promising freshmen like Carte’Are Gordon and Fred Thatch Jr., and it’s clear that the Billikens are one of the most talented teams in the league. The struggle now is integrating the newcomers and teaching them the system in time for the season—no small task when the new players almost double the returnees.

Since he signed with SLU, Goodwin has received comparisons to Marcus Smart, and Ford talked about how striking the similarities between the two players was.

“It’s almost eerie how similar they are, in terms of the strengths that they bring—ultra-competitive, play hard all the time, great leaders vocally and in how hard they play, great feel for the game and making plays—those are both their strengths as basketball players,” Ford said. “They have similar builds, they’re both long guards. I’ve said for a long time it’s eerie how similar those two are.”

Ford had some extremely strong Smart-related praise for freshmen Gordon and Thatch, saying that the two of them and Smart were the three most competitive freshmen he’s ever seen, and raving about their physical readiness. Ford has compared Gordon to his former teammate at Kentucky, retired NBA star Jamal Mashburn. However, he said that we will mostly see Gordon in the paint this year.

“Right now Carte’are is just dominant in the post. He’s so physical inside and he has such a dominant presence. You’ll see him step out and take guys 1 on 1 off the dribble. He can hit an open three, he’s done that in practice. He and Hasahn’s strengths are playing inside but they can step out. Every player has to play from their strength first and then go from there,” Ford said.

A big part of SLU’s rise can be attributed to Ford’s emphasis on local recruiting. Goodwin and Gordon are both St. Louis natives and were the highest rated St. Louis natives in their class. Ford said he really appreciates coaching in a city with such a deep talent pool.

“It’s great, it’s so much fun. I’ve never had a job where I can recruit right here, and go to high school games anytime I want every night and be home the same night,” Ford said. “I knew there was great talent, but I didn’t know that St. Louis players really have an affinity for St. Louis, they really want to rep that city.” Ford said. Ford has been able to use that desire to represent St. Louis effectively in recruiting.

“That’s something we really use in recruiting a lot ‘stay home, we’re not just representing the university, we’re representing the city of St. Louis as the only division I school in such a large area’,” Ford said.

Another advantage has been having NBA stars such as Jayson Tatum and his godfather Larry Hughes around the program.

“Tatum was around a lot this summer, Larry Hughes—one of the greatest players ever to play for SLU and a great player from the city—is always around and is a great ambassador for our university and our basketball program. I think it’s important for our players to see these type of young men who not only are or were great basketball players, but the type of guys they are and what they represent now, I think that’s really important.” Ford said.

SLU’s ascent comes as their would-be rivals in Columbia, Mizzou, are also on the rise under the guiding hand of East St. Louis native Cuonzo Martin. Ford’s son Brooks is a walk-on at Mizzou as well. With the upward trajectory of both programs and the various connections, is this the best chance at a SLU-Mizzou series coming to fruition? It’s not likely, but it’s certainly a possibility sometime in the future.

“We address it maybe once a year. It’s not something we spend a lot of time on. I think we both would like to do it eventually. I’ve stated from the get-go I’d love to do it, (Martin) is still building that program and just in his second year. I think eventually it will get done. There’s no timetable on it but we’ll see in the future” Ford said.

Right now, though, SLU has high expectations and the talent to fulfill them. Now it’s just a matter of getting everything to come together. Ford’s exceeded expectations with bare-bones teams, and it’s exciting to see what he can do with a full cupboard. With so many new players, it’s impossible to predict if the Billikens will disappoint, fulfill their expectations, or wildly exceed them. With the season starting soon, but not soon enough, nothing seems out of the realm of possibility.

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...