As the four second round games of the A10 Tournament tip off today, Saint Louis University will only be watching. After an act of possible Ignatian intervention in St. Joseph’s upset victory over Richmond, the Billikens are the 4 seed and beneficiaries of the double bye, which makes today a good day to take stock for what SLU needs to do to win the A10 Tournament. While the Billikens have hovered around the First Four Out or Next Four Out this past week, really the only way the Billikens get an at-large is if they make it to the championship game, and even then, it is a dicey proposition. Winning the conference tournament would be preferable, in short.
As the 4 seed, SLU has about as reasonable a path to the final as it could hope for. On Friday it will play the winner of UMass-St. Joe’s. SLU emphatically beat UMass 78-57 in its last regular season game, and St. Joe’s, while red-hot since the return of Ryan “Dr. Drip” Daly, is still the 13 seed for a reason. If it wins, SLU then will play either 1-seed St. Bonaventure, or the winner of Richmond-Duquesne. SLU has beaten both St. Bonaventure and Richmond, and is probably the better team than Duquesne. However, it is worth noting that the Dukes beat SLU both times last season and Marcus Weathers is second only to Jalen Crutcher as the biggest Billiken killer in the A-10 today.
Ultimately, in the path to the final, the biggest opponent of the Billikens might be themselves. SLU’s 6-4 record after the COVID pause is in large part due to poor play by the Billikens. Too often the offense has stagnated for long stretches of time, the usually staunch SLU defense has left too many three point shooters open. If it wants to go dancing, SLU can’t afford these types of lapses, particularly on offense. SLU’s offense has been particularly frustrating because the team often shows glimpses of what they can be, but rarely has put everything together for a full game. Below are some keys for SLU’s success in this tournament
Point Good and Yuri Running the Show
Jordan Goodwin and Yuri Collins need to keep the ball moving on offense. Goodwin has emerged as a nightly triple-double threat since filling in at point guard during Collins’ ankle injury, and has continued his stellar passing since Collins has returned. SLU is at its best when Collins and Goodwin are running pick-and-rolls and keeping the ball moving. SLU starts to struggle on offense when there’s no movement, and this can often turn into a cycle of forcing bad shots. If Collins and Goodwin can keep SLU’s offense moving, that should help everyone eat.
French Thriving in Two-Big Line-ups
The team has seen success starting off with two-big lineups against Richmond and UMass, and I’d be surprised if Travis Ford does not return to that recipe on Friday as well. Ford doesn’t need to go with two bigs the whole game, but it has allowed Hasahn French to establish himself in the paint early. The 6’7 big has struggled for much of the year, but the two-big lineup has revitalized him. Playing in the 4 spot has allowed French to attack mismatches in the post and once he starts getting more attention, he can key ball movement from the post. This helps open up looks for shooters such as Javonte Perkins and Gibson Jimerson (as well as Fred Thatch and Terrence Hargrove of late).
SLU’s tournament chances would be further aided if Demarius Jacobs can step up during the tournament. The 6’2 guard’s minutes have decreased as the season has worn on, but Jacobs’ quickness and creativity driving to the rim gives the Billikens a much-needed additional shot creator. Jacobs needs to regain his confidence and be assertive, and Travis Ford needs to give Jacobs enough minutes to get comfortable. When he’s on, Jacobs is one of the most talented players in the conference, and he needs to be given more of a shot if SLU is to reach its full potential.
With the rest of the Billikens bench thriving over the past 2 games, SLU’s depth could give the Billikens a huge advantage over its opponents, who will have either played more games than SLU, or, in the case of St. Bonaventure, only have 5 players who are significant contributors. Fred Thatch and Marten Linssen have emerged as impact reserves, with Thatch hitting a dagger of a three against Richmond and following it up with a 13 point performance against UMass. Linssen has been perhaps the best surprise of the year for the Billikens. The 6’8 German has 5.4 points on 67% shooting in 12 minutes per game, and has been a reliable back-up big man to French. Most important, Linssen shoots 77% from the line, allowing Ford to plug him in for French in late game situations, dramatically shoring up SLU’s free throw shooting when trying to hold a lead. Throw in Terrence Hargrove’s strong play and consistently strong dance moves, and SLU is looking like one of the deepest teams in the conference tournament right now.
The Billikens look to be finding their form at the right time, and have a decent path to securing the automatic bid. However, they’ll face their share of challenges, including the Regular Season Champion St. Bonaventure Bonnies, their biggest concern needs to be not beating themselves. If they can do that, they have as good a shot as anyone in the field to be cutting down the nets in Dayton next Sunday.