ST LOUIS — Saint Louis University’s Billikens won their opening round matchup vs. North Carolina State in nail-biting fashion, crafting together a pair of second-half runs to defeat the Wolfpack in overtime, 83-80. A gritty effort down the stretch for the Billikens, now 27-6 on the year, was aided by the Wolfpack’s inability to put the game away at the free throw line, with NC State shooting 20-37 from the line; remarkably, victorious SLU shot even worse, at 12-26. Those misadventures at the stripe aside, the win was a huge one for the senior-laden Billikens, who stumbled late in Atlantic 10 conference play.
After a program-record 19-game winning streak, which vaulted the team into the nation’s top 10, the Bills lost at home to Duquesne, which set off a rough couple weeks. A thumping on the road versus emerging rival Virginia Commonwealth was followed by a deflating senior night loss at home to Dayton. After righting themselves with a tough road win at Massachusetts, the team was upset in the first round of the A-10 tourney, with St. Bovaventure’s Bonnies defeating the regular season conference champs, 71-68, with a deflating last-second buzzer-beater the difference.
That four-losses-in-five-games storyline followed Coach Jim Crews’ squad into the NCAA Tournament, where the Bills, seeded fifth in the dynamic Midwest Region, drew play-in victor NC State, fresh off of win versus Xavier. The first half against NC State was among the Billikens worst of the season, though they trailed only 30-26 at the break. The second half was shaping up as even worse, the Bills behind by 16 points with just over eight-minutes remaining. But with the Bills’ senior-heavy lineup scratching back into the game, the Bills were able to head into overtime, deadlocked at 70; each team missed critical free throws, any one of which could’ve ended things during regulation.
A rarity in college ball, Crews’ starting lineup is made up of all seniors. (Though, in actuality, wingman Jake Barnett has already graduated, well on his way to an MBA.) With Barnett’s early season inclusion into the starting lineup, the team went on their 19-0 run, rampaging through their non-conference and early A-10 schedule, with a combination of suffocating defense and opportunistic offense.
On Saturday, the Louisville Cardinals—the defending national champions—will have to the stop the Bills’ starting five, with a light smattering of four rotation players backing them up. Here are some capsules on the starting unit and reserves.
Dwayne Evans, forward: After a stellar junior season, Evans figured to have a huge last season. He’s been solid, leading with a roughly 14.0 points per game average. But some late season injury concerns and worries about his confidence have cropped up late in the campaign. That said, he’s still a dangerous presence on offense, scoring many of points directly under the basket, where his crafty baseline drives and timely putbacks have caused fits for opposing big men. He has a decent mid-range jumper and guards anyone from power forwards to off-guards. Heady and smart, he’s had some uncharacteristic turnovers down the stretch, but mitigates those by seemingly willing himself into double-digit scoring each time out.
Jordair Jett, point guard: Arguably one of the top crunch-time performers in the entire nation, Jett’s an erratic foul shooter, who gets most of his points through slashing drives to the bucket. In the paint, he can be deadly, with a variety of floaters and teardrops. A strong defender, Jett’s the A-10 player of the year and a deserved, all-conference defender. A late-season knee injury has caused his some additional aches and pains, but he seems to still be improving in the late minutes of each game; against the Wolfpack, he had one point in the first half, but finished with 18. That’s not an unusual statline for Jett, who tends to take over the Bills’ offense in the closing minutes of tight games.
Rob Loe, forward/center: The New Zealander lives up to the reputation of foreign big men being comfortable both inside and outside. Though he’ll muck it up underneath, Loe’s often more dangerous on the outside, where his streaky three-point shooting can be a difference in any given game. Against NC State, he played arguably the finest, all-’round game of his college career, with 22 points and 15 boards, with an added three assists. While his regular season had moments of greatness, his final numbers were relatively pedestrian. His scoring burst against NC State ensures that he has one more game to extend his collegiate career, while proving his versatility to next level scouts.
Mike McCall Jr., shooting guard: The team’s leading scorer as a freshman, McCall’s been a complementary scorer through his four-year career. A definitively streaky shooter, McCall Jr. can sometimes exasperate SLU fans, with the potential for scoring two, 12 or 22 points in any contest. Though his shooting touch was off against NC State, he still recorded 12 points, six boards and six assists. In some respects, his potential for a breakout game at any time makes him SLU’s ultimate “X-factor” player.
Barnett, small forward/shooting guard: A fifth-year collegiate player, Barnett’s scrapped his way from a seldom-seen sophomore for former Coach Rick Marjerus to a starter today. Barnett, typically cast by media as the scrappy, gym rat-type, can send SLU fans into fits. But when the Bills are at their best, Barnett seems to show up at key moments. In the Bills’ wins, after every eye-popping turnover, Barnett seems to have a dagger-like three-pointer for an answer. His six points against NC State came on two deep-threes and he tends to draw defensive assignments against the opposition’s finest scorers, often giving up considerable height and weight in the bargain.
Reserves: Junior center John Manning is usually not seen alongside Loe, but against NC State’s beefy frontcourt, he played a well-rounded game, oftentimes sharing court-time with Loe, while scoring seven key points… Redshirt sophomore Austin McBroom is the team’s backup point and shooting guard. A late-season struggle with his shot has mirrored his minutes, more limited of late. Still, he’s a dangerous free throw shooter and is often the quickest player on the court… Freshman forward Tanner Lancona’s stock has risen in recent weeks, soaking up most of the few minutes that Evans spends on the bench. He’ll mix it up in the paint, but seems most comfortable shooting from the outside at this early point in his career… Grandy Glaze, an energetic junior forward, has been playing sporadic minutes of late, but remains a willing rebounder, frequently picking up his points off putbacks from offensive boards… Freshmen Mike Crawford (guard) and Reggie Agbeko (forward) have played only scattered minutes through the last month… Together, this group of Billikens remain a defense-first squad, with single-digit margins the rule in both victory and defeat.
Louisville and St. Louis play at 2:45 p.m. Saturday in Orlando.
Thomas Crone covers the Billikens for St. Louis Magazine, at stlmag.com.