Saint Louis enters Wednesday night's contest at 18-5 (6-3 Atlantic 10), while Saint Joseph's stands at 15-9 (5-4). The Hawks have won consecutive games at Richmond and at The Palestra against La Salle. The Billikens also come in off a winning streak, having taken down both Dayton and Saint Bonaventure at home.
According to Ben Weixlmann, talk about the Billikens needs to begin with 6'7 senior forward Brian Conklin. Conklin, according to Weixlmann, will not blow you away with quickness or athleticism, but "has developed into one of the top ten or twenty players in the conference." Despite being somewhat undersized, and not an explosive athlete, Conklin excels around the bucket. In SLU's win at Xavier, Conklin got the better of Xavier center Kenny Frease, scoring 19 points on 6-10 shooting.
An important match-up on Wednesday will be the one between Conklin and Saint Joseph's Halil Kanacevic. Conklin is a smart, heady, physical player. Kanacevic is coming off the game of his young Hawk career against La Salle, where he had 18 points and grabbed 15 rebounds. Halil is foul-prone though, and Saint Louis will likely feed the ball to Conklin in the post early and often if he is being guarded by Kanacevic.
While Conklin leads the Billikens in scoring, he is only one of three players that averages double-digits for them. 5'10 junior point guard Kwamain Mitchell is second on the team in scoring at just under 12 points per contest. According to Weixlmann, Kwamain's strength is "getting to the rack." In addition, Mitchell shoots just under five three-pointers a game, and connects on 36% of those attempts. Weixlmann stressed that Mitchell has not regained his sophomore year form, but that he still does show flashes here and there of his true ability.
At the two-guard spot, the Billikens had been starting senior Kyle Cassity for much of the year, but that has recently changed. In his spot, sophomore Mike McCall has been getting the nod. McCall checks in right around six-foot, and can knock down jumpers if given space. Last Wednesday, against Saint Bonaventure, McCall went off for 15 points in 30 minutes of action.
Saint Louis' third-leading scorer is junior forward Cody Ellis. Ellis averages 10.5 per game and is, on the year, a solid three-point shooter for a 6'8 forward. Of late, Ellis has struggled a bit to find his stroke. In his last five games, he is only 8-27 from three-point range. However, in back-to-back games against Oklahoma and Loyola-Marymount earlier this year, Ellis went 4-5 and 4-6 respectively. If he is able to stretch the floor for the Billikens, that changes the dynamic of their entire offense.
While scouting reports often tend to focus mostly on offensive statistics, Weixlmann told me that defense is really the name of the game for Saint Louis. "Rick Majerus teams are well-known for their defense and SLU will lock you down," Weixlmann told Hawk Hill Hardwood. The Billikens have only given up over 70 points twice this year, and both resulted in losses. Once, during a tough loss at Loyola-Marymount and once in overtime at Dayton.
Sophomore guard Jordair Jett can score the ball a bit, and actually averages just under seven points a contest, but Weixlmann advises that his impact is most felt on the defensive side of the ball. "He may be only six-foot, but he's 215 or 220 pounds and very good defensively. Jordair has great athleticism," Weixlmann explained. Look for Jett to pester both Langston Galloway and Carl Jones on Wednesday.
In terms of big-picture perspective on this game, the differences between the teams are notable. Both only go seven or eight deep, but that's about where the similarities end. Saint Joseph's, more than anything, wants to get out in the open court and run. Across the board, the Hawks are a superior team athletically. However, this Saint Louis team, like all Majerus squads, wants to bog you down in the half-court.
The Billikens average a shade under 70 points per game, while the Hawks are a just under 72. The Hawks also average 36.6 rebounds per contest compared to 32.5 for Saint Louis. This game will likely be determined by tempo and three-point shooting. Weixlmann explained that "during SLU's five losses, they have shot the ball really poorly from three." If Saint Joseph's is able to push the tempo and defend the perimeter well, they will have a realistic shot against the Billikens.
In an extremely tight Atlantic 10 race, this contest has serious implications. A win would pull the Hawks and Billikens even at 6-4 in conference play, just behind league-leading Temple.
Special thanks to Ben Weixlmann of BillikenReport.com for his help on this article.
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