COLUMBUS, Ohio-- Saint Louis head coach Rick Majerus' first recruiting class started with seven players. Four years later, just four remained. One helped the program from the bench in shirt and tie and one is currently a junior. The other two, Brian Conklin and Kyle Cassity, became the defacto leaders faces of the program.
On Sunday afternoon, as the seconds ran out on the Billikens' season, it marked the end of an era in SLU basketball for Conklin and Cassity.
Ruben Cotto, Willie Reed, and Brett Thompson all left the program for varying reasons. Femi John suffered a career-ending knee injury, but would remain a voice around the program throughout his SLU tenure. Kwamain Mitchell faced a setback that required him to sit out a year. All the while, Conklin and Cassity matriculated through the system, earned their degrees early, and began working on their Masters in Business Administration.
So when Conklin took the podium for the final time yesterday, the ever-calm and composed senior simply couldn't hold back. He had been through too much in his time at SLU to not let his emotions show.
"Coach has done so much," Conklin said, sobbing into a blue NCAA-logoed microphone. "Being his first recruiting class, he told me that we were going to help him build something special here. And it felt like this year it really came together, and Kyle and I, Kwamain, we were able to take what Coach taught us."He's a great coach. I couldn't imagine playing for a better coach, a better person. He doesn't just teach you about basketball, it's about life. And he's a great figure for the community and for the city, and he's really brought Saint Louis basketball to where it is right now, bringing in great guys.
"We all love each other in that locker room. And he just knows how to read a person and he brings us all together and we buy into his system because it works, and it brought us this far this year. And you know they've got a great nucleus coming back next year and they're going to be a really tough team, really tough guards, because it's the guy that's leading it."
Cassity, who was featured in the Billikens' system for three years, played just one minute on Sunday. A career full of ups-and-downs was over, and although his eyes welled red with tears, a positive outlook still remained.
"There's nothing we can hang out heads about," Cassity said. "It's tough to lose, but we went out guns blazing."
To realize why emotions rode so high, you'd have to know more about the two seniors.
It was an unlikely pair. Conklin was from Eugene, Ore. and grew up a diehard Oregon fan. Cassity starred at Pinckneyville (Ill.) High School and hails from Tamaroa, Ill., a small town with a population of 737.
Majerus had handpicked the two for one another. He told Conklin that he had his future best friend already committed, which eventually turned out to be the case. So much so that Cassity will be one of Conklin's best men in his wedding later this year.
Although the 64-year-old coach has had plenty of players affect his life over the years, but when he took to the stage first on Sunday in Columbus, he couldn't get very far. He sounded exhausted and out of breath. The last ten minutes had been spent with two of the first players he ever brought to SLU's campus.
"I don't want you to think I'm out of breath or anything," Majerus said fighting back tears. "It's just very emotional for me with Kyle and Brian. You get attached to kids. I'll see them again, not in the capacity that they're in now."
Perhaps it was the fact that they were part of his first recruiting class. His emotions were also likely enhanced by both of them receiving all-conference academic honors, something he values more heavily than basketball talent. Whatever it was, it was genuine. Those were the types of kids Majerus wishes he had every time around.
In fact, coming up four points short against Michigan State was a bit of a microcosm for the program. The Spartans were superior at every position and on a whole much more talented. As Conklin noted, SLU players generally aren't five, four, or even three-star players coming out of high school, but they work as a cohesive unit.
Cassity believed that the Spartans rivaled Duke as perhaps the Billikens toughest opponent over his four-year career. A bunch of players who have bought into Majerus' system, however, made it a very close ballgame.
"That's probably not the first game that has happened to us," Cassity said. "It happens a lot. We're not the most talented team, we're not the most athletic team, we're not the quickest team. But we're normally the better team."
After reaching the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2000 and winning a tournament game, the 2008 recruiting class seems to have provided a strong foundation for the program to grow for the future.
"I hope so," Cassity said about leaving the program in better shape than it was when he arrived. "I really do. When we got here we were Coach's first class. It's kind of a building block. We were starting something new at Saint Louis University. Hopefully that winning tradition kind of sticks around for a while. These guys, they're hard workers. They'll be back next year, I'm sure. No doubt about that."
With recruits Jared Drew and Keith Carter coming in, the pipeline looks to be in store for several years of success to come.
Cassity and Conklin had to ride through the bumpy years first in order to make Sunday possible. They had made it to the end , and that's what made this time so difficult.
"What I'd do to get one more year to stick around and play," Cassity said with a wide smile. "That's for sure."