In the sixth season since Rick Majerus took over the Saint Louis University basketball program, the Billikens have become everything that Majerus and school administrators once envisioned.
They’re just doing it without him.
Ranked No. 15, leading the Atlantic 10 Conference and projected for a top-five seed in the NCAA Tournament, SLU is one the best stories in college basketball. Having lost twice to them, Butler coach Brad Stevens says the Billikens are as talented as his recent Final Four team (the one without Gordon Hayward) and will be tough for anybody to beat in March because of their discipline and poise.
The Billikens’ performance is a tribute to Majerus, who died of heart failure before his work could be completed at SLU. He basically was hired to do there what he did in 14 seasons at Utah: build a following locally and distinguish the Jesuit school nationally.
It took a while, but it’s certainly happening now, in an inspiring way. The players who carried Majerus’ casket in December have honored him by winning in his classic style of solid defense and efficient offense.
“Our guys have not gotten bored with working on fundamentals,” said interim coach Jim Crews, who should be a contender for national awards.
“What’s cool is we have taken Rick’s system … and they’ve really taken ownership of the system,” Crews said. The result is a 23-5 record and an 11-game winning streak, prior to Wednesday’s visit to Xavier.
Majerus could see this coming, even during the only losing season of his career. That’s when I last visited him in St. Louis, watching the 2010-11 team that included Jordair Jett, Mike McCall, Dwayne Evans, Cody Ellis and Rob Loe grind out a win over UMass during that 12-19 season, while guard Kwamain Mitchell was sitting out because of school disciplinary sanctions.
This season, those six players are averaging between 7.9 and 12.6 points in an unselfish, team-oriented approach. “They have big-time talent,” Stevens said, “and they play ‘old.’ They react to success and adversity in a very mature way. They have a very good system, very disciplined. They just have it all.”
The comparison of SLU to Majerus’ great Utah teams or Hayward’s 2010 Butler team falls short, because there’s no NBA first-round draft prospect among the Billikens.
Yet they’re the best team in a deep, competitive conference. SLU handled A-10 newcomers Butler and Virginia Commonwealth in league play and beat New Mexico in December.
The Billikens eventually were going to be very good, and Majerus knew it two years ago, before anybody else. More evidence came last season, when they beat Memphis in the NCAA Tournament and then took Michigan State to the wire before losing in what became Majerus’ final game.
The transcript of the postgame news conference is a little eerie to read now, with hints that he recognized his career may be ending. The printed words barely convey the emotion of Majerus saying, “You get attached to kids.”
Yeah, you do. Even having watched the Billikens play in person only once, I’ve followed them avidly ever since. Being in Majerus’ hometown of Milwaukee in December and seeing those players act as his pallbearers left an image that will stick with me for a long time.
“Some of them lost a father figure,” Crews said this week. “They all lost a coach. Some of them for the first time lost someone close to them. It was a very emotional time.”
Since their coach died, the Billikens have gone 20-2, but that record tells only part of their story. Majerus loved this team, and he’s not the only one.