Kragthorpe: Ex-Ute coach Rick Majerus thriving in Saint Louis
Majerus improving the Billikens with the same formula that worked for the Utes.
Published: February 23, 2012 11:24PM
Updated: February 23, 2012 11:32PM
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Kurt Kragthorpe

Oh, yes, this is the Rick Majerus we all remember, the coach who’s responding to a standard subject of how his Saint Louis University basketball team is exceeding expectations by referencing the San Antonio Spurs’ Tim Duncan and Kentucky freshman Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, whose name he hopes he’s saying correctly … and what was the question, again?

And this is the Majerus the SLU administration hired five years ago, the coach who’s delivering another overachieving team to the national stage.

Following the only losing season of his college coaching career, Majerus is doing some of his best work. After an adventurous year that included the school-imposed suspension of his top two players and his sideline collision with one of his players, causing him to miss several games, SLU’s comeback coincides with his old program’s downturn.

Symmetrically enough, the Billikens can improve to 23-5 by beating lowly Rhode Island this weekend, while Utah can fall to 5-23 with losses to Cal and Stanford.

Unlike his great Ute teams that featured NBA first-round draft picks, “We don’t have a guy on the team who’s going to be a pro,” Majerus said.

Yet the Billikens beat Washington, Villanova and Oklahoma in November and stand 10-3 in the Atlantic 10 Conference, a half-game behind first-place Temple. They’re a lock for the school’s first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2000, when SLU lost to Utah in the first round.

This is exactly what SLU expected of Majerus when he arrived in 2007, three years removed from Utah and having worked as an ESPN analyst. The Jesuit school was building a new, on-campus arena and the president viewed basketball as a way to distinguish SLU nationally.

The Billikens’ breakthrough may have taken longer than anticipated, but it’s happening. Followers of his Utah teams would recognize how he’s doing it: with great defense, just enough offense and a style that takes all the fun out of basketball for his opponents.

“What we have is nine guys who really have played tremendously hard,” Majerus said this week. “They’ve played better than the sum of their parts. That’s what we have, a gut-it-out team.”

The result is a shot at the school’s first regular-season championship since a Missouri Valley Conference title, which came more than 40 years and four different leagues ago. With only two seniors and upgraded recruiting, SLU should have staying power under Majerus, who’s 64 and in apparently good health after a stent implanted last summer in Salt Lake City improved his heart’s condition.

The Billikens are projected for about a No. 8 NCAA seed, while ranking in the top 30 of the polls and standing 11th in Ken Pomeroy’s advanced metrics. They’re seventh in the country in scoring defense, allowing 56.5 points, and are adequate offensively.

“They’re very efficient,” said Fordham coach Tom Pecora, who lost to SLU by 20 points last weekend.

“They’re doing what Rick’s teams have always done, they’re playing to their strengths.”

The trick with Majerus, as I forgot this week, is never to ask him a question that seeks a particular answer. When I visited him last winter, the subject of his first losing season accidentally evoked this golden response: “I’ll tell you the truth, though: This is the best coaching job I’ve ever done.”

His statement likely was accurate, disregarding a 12-19 record. Once point guard Kwamain Mitchell was reinstated this season, the A-10 coaches and media voted SLU third in the preseason poll, and they’ve lived to up to that forecast.

Just don’t ask Majerus how these Billikens have matched his own expectations, or you get his discourse about living in the moment, focusing on each segment of practice and playing possession-by-possession — you know, like Duncan and Kidd-Gilchrist.

Utah’s glory days may be gone, but Rick Majerus is himself again.

kkragthorpe@sltrib.com

Twitter: @tribkurt

Rick Majerus’ record at SLU

Season Overall Conf

2007-08 16-15 7-9

2008-09 18-14 8-8

2009-10 23-13 11-5

2010-11 12-19 6-10

2011-12 22-5 8-3

Total 91-66 42-34

Status of former Utah head coaches

Coach Years Record Current pos. Rec.

Rick Majerus 1989-2004 323-95 HC, Saint Louis 22-5

Ray Giacoletti 2004-07 54-40 Asst., Gonzaga 21-5

Jim Boylen 2007-11 69-60 Asst., Pacers 20-12

*2011-12 record