Crews, Saint Louis keep it simple
The Billikens don't mind that few have taken notice of their historic season
SAINT LOUIS -- Saint Joseph's desperately needed a bucket. The Hawks had scored 40 points in 33 minutes of basketball; they'd made 1 of their 10 3-point attempts; they trailed by 11 with seven minutes to play. They were stuck. Phil Martelli called timeout.
You know that scene in the "Star Trek" reboot when scary Romulan Eric Bana realizes he's been tricked? "Fire everything!" That's what happened next.
Chris Wilson inbounded the ball to Ronald Roberts Jr. Roberts handed the ball back to Wilson and edged out to screen Mike McCall Jr., Wilson's defender. Wilson went right, flying by one screen and then another, all the way to the right side of the floor. Roberts pushed toward the lane. There he received not one but two simultaneous baseline screens designed to get him open on the near block. Meanwhile, Halil Kanacevic set a pick at the top of the key for DeAndre Bembry.
It was a brilliant design. Yet neither Roberts nor Bembry came come close to touching the ball.
Saint Louis guard Jake Barnett had stayed on the near block to help prevent the entry pass. Jordair Jett had fought through the Kanacevic screen up top. Forward Rob Loe muscled Roberts almost 15 feet away from the rim. McCall never left Wilson. So, Plan C, Wilson wheeled out left again, got another ball screen from Kanacevic, and turned the corner -- only to be redirected away from the rim by Dwayne Evans.
All Wilson could do was shuffle a pass to a relocating Bembry in the corner, and watch from under the rim as Bembry took a bad, contested 3 with Barnett's hand in his face.
Jett got the rebound. Possession over. Martelli had thrown everything he had at Saint Louis, and the Billikens barely broke a sweat.
"That's how John Chaney's teams won all the time, because of the Temple zone," Martelli said later, after his team was held to 47 points, and 1-of-15 from 3, in 66 possessions on its own floor. "Now you have the Saint Louis man-to-man."
There have been more conventional highlights from Saint Louis' 22-2 start -- like, say, Jett scoring 15 of his team's final 17 points, including the game winner, at La Salle Saturday. But few passages in the Billikens' oeuvre sum up why they are so successful, and why so little noise has been generated on their behalf.
"I don't think there's a lot of hype about Saint Louis out there," Evans said. "But we've quietly piled up a lot of wins."
"I think we're kind of used to being overlooked," McCall said. "And we don't care."
How does a team begin a season 22-2 and barely raise an eyebrow?
A number of external factors have to work against you: a college landscape packed with freshman stars; a primal focus on the NBA; a historically good national player of the year front-runner; two teams carrying undefeated records deep into February. There is a lot going on in college hoops this season. Ink is hard to come by.
But the relative quiet around Saint Louis -- and in a sport where everyone claims to be "overlooked," it's rare to find a team that actually deserves the designation -- has a lot to do with who the Billikens are, and how they play.
Evans, Jett, McCall, Loe and Barnett are five seniors -- none of them an obvious star -- who smother opponents in the nation's most glorious, symphonic and frustrating man-to-man defense. Saint Louis hedges ball screens out to the half-court line. It denies and overplays every wing. It holds teams to 28.4 percent from 3-point range, the fifth-lowest mark in the country. It rebounds 72 percent of opponents' misses. Through Friday, the Billikens ranked third in the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency. They've reduced Atlantic-10 opponents to a meager .88 points per possession.
And they need that defense, too: Their offense ranks just eighth in the A-10 in points per possession. It has sputtered in fits and starts. Saint Louis games are low-scoring by design.
It is not an ethos predisposed to lengthy highlight packages on "SportsCenter." Even the wonkiest screen-hedge fetishist enjoys some made baskets here and there. It can also be difficult to describe without lapsing into clichés: experience, togetherness, teamwork, trust and the importance of taking it one game at a time.
But where other teams cite these things as goals, Saint Louis lives them out, and makes it look easy while doing so.
"Sometimes I almost think the media thinks we're lying," Barnett said, "Or not lying, but what's the word? Just saying it for the media, you know? Just saying we're focusing on one thing at a time, just saying we're locked in on the next game. But our guys really are locked in."
Ask Saint Louis coach Jim Crews to break down the "national perception" of his team. Go ahead. It's funny. Tell him that there isn't a team both as good and as quiet as his. Float your theory that maybe people have just gotten used to the idea of Saint Louis being good. Watch Crews' face as he waits for the "question" to end.
"I have no clue," Crews said. "You'd probably be better -- it just -- I don't worry about it. It doesn't help us prepare, it doesn't help us get better or make us worse, so I just don't worry about it. I don't know what the Idaho paper or the Los Angeles Times says about us."
If you're looking for answers as to why Saint Louis' senior-led group has managed the best start and longest winning streak in school history in the matter of a season, Crews is the place to start. A year ago, he took over as the interim coach for Rick Majerus as his friend's health declined and eventually failed. Crews' caring, calm leadership saw Saint Louis through the real loss, and earned him the full-time job in the process.
A year later, Crews is intent on preserving Majerus' "lessons and memories," while putting his own stamp on a program that is having its best season ever.
The process for doing so is simple, broken into three recurring steps. After each game, Saint Louis focuses inward. Coaches and players watch film, find what they did wrong and work to "clean it up." After, Crews said, his staff moves on to "fundamentals" -- focusing on improving the basic things Saint Louis does on both ends of the floor, avoiding the temptation to get caught up in adjustments and prepping for upcoming games. Third is player development, which is pretty self-explanatory.
"And then," Crews said, "is the scout."
The scout is the hidden engine driving Saint Louis' success, the grimy coal-powered furnaces below the cruise ship's serene deck. The Billikens don't change their offense much. They run their stuff. But on defense, the scout is crucial. It allows Crews to apply tiny, game-to-game tweaks to his team's experienced, adaptable defense. It lets him plug and play with a group of players who eagerly absorb new wrinkles. It gives him a chance to congeal game-changing strategies.
So, were you to walk into the Saint Louis offices on a quiet Sunday off, you would find assistant coaches hovered over Synergy windows, breaking down film of teams two and three games ahead on the schedule. (The film room may be the one place Saint Louis can be said to look past its opponents.) By the time Crews needs to prepare his team for a game, whole mounds of data have been refined and condensed into one or two insights -- visual bullet points, presented on film. And then the Billikens watch.
In the summer, team captains Evans, Jett, McCall, Loe and Barnett had a series of senior meetings. They were informal, more like conversations -- big productions aren't really these guys' style. There was plenty to discuss: After last season's success, the Billikens were losing then-seniors Kwamain Mitchell, Cody Ellis and Cory Remekun, and new leadership was needed. But by the time October rolled around, they had honed their own concerns to one succinct phrase: "slippage."
"As you get older, it's really easy to bypass the little stuff and say, 'Oh, we've been doing this for years,'" Barnett said. "V-backing, denying, boxing out, details -- all of these little things that we take for granted are the things which make us really good.
"So that's what we're always saying to each other, reminding each other: Don't slip. Don't try and think we're too good to do it. If you have slippage, if you forget those things, then you're not who you are."
Evans, who averages 14.5 points and 6.3 rebounds per game on 49.4 percent shooting, is the most likely NBA prospect of the bunch. (Though if Jett keeps up his sudden scoring pace, he may join those ranks, too.) Which means he didn't entirely avoid the high-end AAU circuit, which means he knows what it's like to play basketball with people you barely know, who have different goals than your own.
Saint Louis is the inverse of that. The Billikens have the experience that comes with time, yes, but also the trust. No one plays outside the offense, or outside what his teammates need. No one doubts for a second that if your man beats you, help is on the way. No one needs to even call "help," because it's usually already there.
"We like each other," Evans said. "It really helps to play with people you like."
"We've played together so long, we know where we're going to be all the time," Loe said. "We're just really in tune."
You can hear that in the way Crews talks about his team's "wisdom." You can tell from the way Barnett describes "the people on my left side and my right." You can see it in the balanced box scores, or in the variety of ways Saint Louis has extended its 16-game winning streak -- a streak that began after its last loss, to still-unbeaten Wichita State.
But most of all, you see it when the Billikens play defense, in crucial possessions like the one against Saint Joe's, or in any of the superficially forgettable ones. If you tune in to Saturday's huge A-10 clash against VCU, you'll see it then, too. Total belief, total trust.
Why is Saint Louis so good? And why hasn't that success translated into a mound of national attention? Because the landscape is crowded, because defense can be hard to watch, because process requires patience. Sure. But maybe it's because it's hard to describe how much a group of players love each other, and even harder to quantify why that matters.
But it does, and the Billikens do. And they haven't slipped yet.
"Wins beat national attention any day," Evans said.
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