Basketball Scouting Report: Saint Louis
Say what you want about the decline of Georgia Tech basketball. The point remains that Vanderbilt had to overcome both a depleted roster and a slow start on Dec. 21 against the Yellow Jackets. The ability of the Commodores to sustain a surge without faltering down the stretch (as was the case against Providence a month ago) should give head coach Kevin Stallings a great deal of confidence going forward. If Vanderbilt can play Saint Louis on even terms, the Dores will have ample reason to think that they can go toe-to-toe with every SEC team other than Florida and Kentucky.
SAINT LOUIS AT-A-GLANCE
Last season, the Saint Louis Billikens lost head coach Rick Majerus in early December. Majerus, one of college basketball's great characters – and master chess players – over the past 25 years, regularly took modest collections of talent and turned them into defensive machines that were far more than the sum of their parts. Majerus got Utah to the national championship game in the 1998 NCAA Tournament, and after years of fighting an uphill battle, he got Saint Louis to the point where the Billikens were not just an NCAA tournament team, but a team that expected to win a Big Dance game and contend for a spot in the Sweet 16. Majerus's death most centrally robbed the Billikens of a beloved figure, one of the best teachers college basketball has ever known. The loss of Majerus the person mattered more than anything else.
Yet, it has to be said that Saint Louis wasn't just deprived of Majerus's humor and compassion. It's undeniable that SLU lost an X-and-O master, the person best situated to take a good team a long way in March of 2013. When Jim Crews became the Billikens' interim coach, there were hardly any guarantees that the team Majerus left behind would continue to mesh under another leader.
Crews – entering the rarest and most difficult of situations, especially from an emotional standpoint – couldn't have responded any better. The Billikens won the Atlantic 10's regular-season and tournament championships, earning a No. 4 seed in the NCAA tournament and reaching the round of 32. The white-hot Oregon Ducks upended SLU to deny the Billikens a trip to the Sweet 16, but the magnitude of SLU's accomplishments remained considerable, especially under the circumstances. Crews established himself as the permanent head coach for this team, a promotion he indisputably earned with his performance on the bench. In this still-young season, he hasn't been able to engineer an upset of an elite team, but SLU's only losses have come to teams ranked in the top 10, No. 4 Wisconsin and No. 10 Wichita State. Blessed with a veteran lineup, SLU appears primed to return to the NCAAs. Vanderbilt is playing a particularly formidable opponent on the next-to-last day of 2013.
Forward – Rob Loe – Senior, 6-11, 245 2013-14: 9.7 points per game, 5.5 rebounds per game, 1.1 blocked shots per game
Saint Louis's recent teams have not featured particularly long or athletic big men, the kinds of low-post players who attract a lot of attention at both ends of the floor. The Billikens produce big men who set lots of screens, facilitate ball movement, blend into halfcourt sets, and play excellent positional defense. Loe's main task is not to load up the stat sheet or become a primary scoring threat. He's supposed to work in concert with his teammates, especially on defense. As long as he's holding his own as a low-post defender and as a rebounder, he's giving SLU what it needs.
Forward – Dwayne Evans – Senior, 6-6, 230; 2013-14: 15.9 ppg, 5.9 rpg, 1.7 assists per game
Evans is by far the best player on the Saint Louis roster, not just the team's primary scoring threat. Evans powered the Billikens to the Atlantic 10 championship last season with his constant energy and his ability to get into the paint on offense. Strong and intelligent, Evans displays a level of patience as an offensive player which compensates for a lack of quickness. Evans knows what to do with the ball, and he knows how to find his way to the rim. What might be his best attribute as a player is that he is an outstanding defender. Being the leading scoring option on a team would make many players unwilling to pour forth a substantial level of effort on defense, but that's not how Evans – or any Saint Louis player – goes about his business. This characteristic is precisely what makes the Billikens so tough.
Guard – Jordair Jett – Senior, 6-1, 215; 2013-14: 10.5 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 4.6 apg
Jett is the tablesetter for the rest of the Billikens. Jett makes sure to involve his teammates and bring cohesion to the Saint Louis offense. You'll note that Saint Louis has four players with scoring averages between 8 and 10.5 points per game. This is a team that thrives on its balance, and a five-as-one approach on offense in which the best shot is the one taken by the open man in the best situation. (If no one gets open, Evans is obviously the creator.) Jett, though, takes the lead in terms of distributing the ball. If Vanderbilt can limit his ability to set up his teammates, the Commodores can stymie the Billikens' offense.
Guard – Mike McCall, Jr. – Senior, 6-0, 180; 2013-14: 9.7 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 2.5 apg
Notice the common thread running through Saint Louis' starters? They're all seniors. McCall fits snugly into the balance-oriented SLU offense. He's yet another player who buys into the system and is therefore not likely to either dominate the ball or take a bad shot. Looking at McCall and the other players on the Billikens' roster, it is evident that this team succeeds not necessarily for what it does; the things this team doesn't do are the things that enable SLU to be more effective. The Billikens don't turn the ball over. They don't allow high-quality shots when they play defense. They protect their own backboard and deny opponents second-chance points. McCall and the other seniors on this roster simply don't give away possessions or points.
Guard/Forward – Jake Barnett – Senior, 6-5, 205; 2013-14: 4.9 ppg, 2.4 rpg
Barnett doesn't receive quite as many minutes per game as teammate (and non-senior) Austin McBroom, but Crews wants five seniors on the floor to start the game. Barnett doesn't leave much of a statistical footprint, but he doesn't play a small amount of minutes. He averages 21.4 per game, so it's not as though this team's accomplishments exist because of the work of other players. If Barnett couldn't hold his own as a defender, he wouldn't be logging as much court time. He makes himself useful, just not to the extent of other players on this roster.
As mentioned above, Austin McBroom gets more minutes than Barnett (one more minute, basically, at 22.6 compared to 21.4). McBroom, though, averages 8.2 points per game and 2.1 assists. His production is what gives him more floor time than Barnett. Forward Grandy Glaze averages 6.8 rebounds per game, tops on the team. Center John Manning, the eighth player on the SLU roster to average at least 12 minutes a game of playing time, doesn't make much of an impact on the stat sheet at all.
Keys to the Game
1) Give nothing away. The Billikens don't give away possessions or points, so the Commodores have to set the same example if they want this game to be close.
2) Get to the free throw line. Saint Louis plays rugged, coordinated defense, so Vanderbilt cannot expect to find a lot of high-percentage uncontested shots. The Commodores need to force Saint Louis to defend without fouling. Getting free throws will enable Vanderbilt to score when mid-range or long-distance shots aren't falling.
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