When you think about basketball in the state of Missouri, the Saint Louis Billikens most likely aren't the first team to come to your mind. You can't be blamed, of course, because the Missouri Tigers have performed well beyond anyone's expectations and are a top-five team in the country.
But that doesn't mean the Billikens aren't worth noticing.
In his fifth year at the helm in Saint Louis, Rick Majerus has led his team to a 21-5 overall mark with a 9-3 conference record—good enough for second in the Atlantic 10. Under the current circumstances, the Billikens are a clear NCAA Tournament team. They are clicking on all cylinders and are in the midst of a five-game winning streak.
The buzz, however, has yet to accompany the success.
Despite the Billikens' quality season, bad timing on two different levels has hurt their chances for national recognition and has made them a huge sleeper.
One reason for SLU's under-the-radar status is the exceptional play of several other mid-major schools across the country. Murray State and Saint Mary's, to name a few, have made headlines consistently this season and both are in the AP Top 25. The spotlight on schools outside of the power conferences is typically limited, and with the emergence of so many other mid-majors, it has been difficult for the Billikens to obtain their piece of the media pie.
Secondly, when Saint Louis' national stock was at its highest (23rd in the AP Top 25 for Week 4), the Billikens suffered their worst loss of the season against Loyola-Marymount, which knocked them well out of any national conversation for much of the season.
As a result, most of America missed out on some fantastic basketball.
Saint Louis is skilled on many levels, but the strengths that make the Billikens an upper-echelon team are their defense, their depth and their camaraderie. While their offensive play isn't always highlight-reel worthy, being perfect on offense isn't necessary when the other team is unable to score.
The Billikens hold their opponents on average to 56.5 PPG, which is best in the Atlantic 10 and sixth in the nation. They have allowed more than 70 points just four times this season, allowing less than 50 points six times and less than 40 points three times.
Keep in mind, these are college basketball scores, not middle school scores.
Saint Louis also has an extremely deep squad, which is a testament to the recruiting abilities of Coach Majerus. Nine players on the team average over 10 minutes per game, and any player at any time has an opportunity to make an impact.
The quality leadership on the team is particularly evident, both from the coach and from the players.
Kwamain Mitchell, a junior and the Billikens' leading scorer in 2009-10, has changed his role completely on the team. Rather than taking the majority of the scoring opportunities upon himself, he has become a fantastic distributor of the basketball, consistently finding Brian Conklin, the team's leading scorer at 14.3 PPG, and Cody Ellis, the team's best three-point shooter. The team is very unselfish, and it's easy to see on the court just how much the players like each other.
Surprised you haven't heard about the Billikens before? You should be.
Saint Louis University, depending on their finish to the regular season and their performance in the Atlantic-10 Tournament, will in all likelihood be positioned in the middle of the pack in the NCAA seeding.
That doesn't mean the Billikens are a middle-of-the-pack team.
Don't forget Saint Louis as you fill out your brackets this March. A winner in the regular season may go under the radar, but when March Madness comes around, winning is the only thing that matters.