Saint Louis Billikens Basketball Season Preview

The college hoops season is right around the corner, and Busting Brackets is here to whet your basketball-starved appetite. Over the next five weeks, we are publishing season previews team by team, conference by conference, to offer a glimpse into the upcoming season. Busting Brackets is giving you the lowdown on the biggest storylines, offseason changes and x-factors for each team and each league as we roll into the 2012-13 season. Our complete season preview archive can be accessed here. Buckle up, peeps.

  Saint Louis Billikens

Last Season 26-8 (12-4 A-10)
Lost to Xavier in A-10 tournament semifinals
Lost to Michigan State in NCAA tournament round of 32
Key Returning Players: Kwamain Mitchell, G
Cody Ellis, F
Dwayne Evans, F
Mike McCall Jr., G
Jordair Jett, G
Rob Loe, F
Key Additions: Jim Crews, Interim Head Coach
Keith Carter, G (Proviso East HS)
Jared Drew, F (Cathedral HS)
Key Losses: Rick Majerus, Head Coach
Brian Conklin, F
Kyle Cassity, G
Top Non-Conference Games: Nov. 19 vs. Texas A&M (Hall of Fame Classic)
Nov. 20 vs. Kansas or Washington State (Hall of Fame Classic)
Nov. 28 @ Washington
Dec. 2 vs. Valparaiso
Dec. 31 vs. New Mexico
Top Conference Games: Jan. 10 vs. UMass
Jan. 12 @ Temple
Jan. 31 vs. Butler
Feb. 19 vs. VCU
Feb. 22 @ Butler
Feb. 27 vs. Saint Joseph’s
Mar. 6 @ Xavier
Mar. 9 vs. La Salle
Breakout Player: Kwamain Mitchell. Brian Conklin, the team’s do-everything forward who spearheaded the Billikens on offense last season, is gone, which means Kwamain Mitchell will get the promotion to go-to guy status in 2012-13. The senior guard was the next best offensive weapon on a Saint Louis squad that had a balanced, inside-and-out scoring attack.  After sitting out the 2010-11 season due to a suspension, Mitchell adapted seamlessly to Rick Majerus’s system, proving to be a dual-threat backcourt weapon. He was the team’s best perimeter defender on one and the top facilitator on the other. Mitchell is a big-shot taker and a big-shot maker, remembered in Saint Louis for banking a game-tying, 30-foot 3-point shot against Dayton to force overtime during his sophomore season. Mitchell has the potential to be first-team all-conference good during his senior season. With Conklin out of the picture and the keys to the car now his, he may have to be for the Billikens to win a loaded A-10.
X-Factor: Jim Crews. No change—in personnel or coaching—will be felt more by an A-10 team than the loss of Rick Majerus (ongoing heart condition) at Saint Louis. After taking over a mediocre Billikens squad in 2007, Majerus has turned Saint Louis into an NCAA tournament threat whom no team (A-10 or otherwise) wants to face in a winner-take-all game. Under Majerus, Saint Louis was a defensive bastion, ranking tenth in the country in defensive efficiency last season while boasting an upper echelon offensive squad as well. Whether Crews, the former Army head coach and rookie Saint Louis assistant, can continue what Majerus started in eastern Missouri remains to be seen and will ultimately determine just how high the Billikens can climb. Crews will have no shortage of talent at his disposal. Except for Conklin, one of the most productive players in the history of the program, the interim head coach returns all major pieces from last year’s team which threatened to overturn No. 1-seeded Michigan State in the NCAA tournament. Crews will have to change up the offense with Conklin gone, no longer able to run plays through Conklin on the low block or utilize the jack-of-all-trades senior on the pick-and-roll. How quickly Saint Louis can transition without its glue-guy from a year ago will ultimately fall on the shoulders of the replacement head coach. No pressure, Coach Crews. The talent is in place, expectations are sky high and you’re replacing a college basketball coaching icon.
Best Case: Crews, having spent one year under Majerus as an assistant, is able to pick up right where his superior left off. The Billikens for the second year in a row are an elite defensive team, led by Mitchell and Jordair Jett—the top defensive backcourt combination in the league. Despite the loss of Conklin, Mitchell transitions well to an expanded role as the go-to player on offense. Saint Louis, which ran one of the smoothest and most fundamentally sound offenses in college basketball last season, integrates all of its weapons once again as the well-oiled machine continues to churn out big offensive totals. The shooting prowess continues. If you didn’t know already, EVERYONE on Saint Louis can shoot, including the big fella Rob Loe. The Billikens build on last season’s success, capitalize on a fairly forgiving non-conference schedule and cruise into league play riding a wave of momentum. Saint Louis wins the A-10 regular season outright, then parlays that momentum into  a deep A-10 tournament run and a Sweet 16 appearance at the NCAA tournament.
Worst Case: Losing the team’s leader on the floor and on the bench catches up quickly to Saint Louis. Mitchell, a point guard at heart, does not elevate his game in the absence of Conklin. Crews, meanwhile, struggles to adjust Majerus’ offensive system to account for the loss of Conklin, for whom the system was designed. A growing disconnect surfaces between Crews and his players, who are having trouble adapting to the loss of Majerus. The defense, minus Conklin, slacks from last season. A top-ten defense in the nation regresses to a top-50 defense, and the difference in the standings is substantial. Overcome by a loaded A-10 schedule, the Billikens, lacking leadership, fall to fifth place as VCU, Saint Joseph’s, UMass and La Salle surge out in front. The Billikens stumble early in the A-10 tournament and thanks to a shaky non-conference schedule (assume they don’t meet Kansas in the Hall of Fame Classic) sweat it out on Selection Sunday. Saint Louis squeaks into the NCAA tournament, earning a bid to one of the four first-round play-in games, where they fall in heartbreaking fashion.
Projected Finish: 23-7 (11-5 Atlantic-10)
Lose in semifinals of A-10 tournament
NCAA at-large berth

Topics: Basketball, Saint Louis Billikens

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