Has there been more optimism and excitement surrounding the start of a St. Louis University basketball season? I can't recall anything like this, not in the last 15 years.
You might have to go back to the 1997-98 season, aka the Larry Hughes Year, to find a more dynamic Billikens squad.
Now, we probably won't see any 15-year NBA veterans on this Billikens team, but fans have reason to expect just as much success, if not more, this year. That Hughes team won 22 games, including one in the NCAA tournament.
The Billikens are coming off an outstanding season last year, winning 25 games and finishing second in the Atlantic-10 conference.
The season's apex came in the Billikens' victory over Memphis in the second round of the NCAA tournament. The team then took top-seeded Michigan State down to the very end before eventually falling in defeat to the Spartans.
The Billikens return six of the team's top seven scorers from last year. More importantly, they will finally be able to fill out a starting lineup made solely of upperclassmen.
If that last statement doesn't sound very remarkable to you, consider that not too long ago, there were back-to-back seasons with no juniors or seniors on the Billikens' roster.
The rebuilding project under Rick Majerus has finally started to see results. This season is the culmination of many years of struggle and hard work. The payoff should be tremendous.
Here's a preview of this year's St. Louis University Billikens basketball squad.
Let's get the bad news out of the way first.
Kwamain Mitchell's injury (broken bone in foot) is a terrible loss for this team. Mitchell is the team's MVP, its primary ball handler and on-court leader.
Now the good news: The Billikens' backcourt is incredibly deep.
Interim head coach Jim Crews will be able to trot out any number of talented guards to fill the minutes left by Mitchell in his absence.
Mike McCall (Junior, 6'0", 180 lbs.)
McCall will likely serve as the team's primary ball handler while Mitchell heals. As a sophomore last year, McCall averaged 7.0 points and 2.2 assists per game.
Those numbers are sure to soar, as McCall will likely see 30-plus minutes of playing time (he averaged 22.9 last year).
McCall's greatest value to the team is on the defensive end. McCall generally is assigned to the opponent's sharpest offensive threat. That's with good reason, as McCall was second (behind Mitchell) on the team last year in steals (41).
McCall needs to improve his outside shot (34.8 percent on three-pointers) and be more aggressive in driving to the basket to take advantage of his solid free-throw shooting (75.5 percent).
Jordair Jett (Junior, 6'1", 215 lbs.)
As the first man off the Billikens bench last year, Jett brought a burst of energy and toughness to the team that helped to smother inferior opponents.
Among those who played more than 10 minutes per game, Jett is the leading returner in field-goal percentage (.467).
Jett is a scrappy player with a hard edge. He puts in the tough minutes, dives for loose balls and never quits.
Jett averaged as many rebounds last year (2.8) as the team's starting center. He was good for more than a couple of assists and a steal per game.
Jett needs to drastically improve his free-throw shooting (62.5 percent) from last year, as teams will likely play hack-a-Jett late in close games.
Until Mitchell returns from injury (sometime in late December or early January), Jett will most likely be starting alongside McCall in the backcourt.
Kwamain Mitchell (Senior, 5'10", 175 lbs.)
As soon as Mitchell can play, he will be back in the starting rotation for the Billikens.
Mitchell leads all returning players from last year's team in minutes played, points, assists and steals.
Mitchell's assist-to-turnover ratio (2-1) was tied for the best among all Atlantic-10 players last season.
There is not much more that can be said. The Billikens obviously need Mitchell to return as soon as possible.
Keith Carter (Freshman, 6'0", 175 lbs.)
Carter is one of the more intriguing players on the team's roster. As a true freshman, he probably won't be called on too much during the season, especially after Mitchell returns. But in the meantime, we should get to see the arguably most athletic member of the team.
Majerus has described Carter as someone with "blow-by speed who can get to the rim," and someone who is a great passer, both in transition and in the half-court game.
As "the best guard" Majerus has recruited in his SLU tenure (his words), it will be exciting to see how Carter's talents translate to the Division-I game.
The Billikens have a long history of starting frontcourt players who love to stretch a defense with a great perimeter game. The missing element each year from the team's frontcourt players is physicality and strong defense at the rim.
Last year, Brian Conklin became that player. This year, the job is open.
Dwayne Evans (Junior, 6'5", 230 lbs.)
Someone is going to need to fill the hole left by Conklin, who graduated last year. That someone is Dwayne Evans. Meet the team's best frontcourt player.
Evans is on the verge of being a double-double machine this season for the Billikens.
Evans led the team in rebounding last season (7.3 per game), grabbing nearly 100 more than his closest teammate.
During conference play, Evans was even better, averaging 8.4 rebounds per game to go with 9.7 points per conference game.
As the season wore on last year, Evans seemingly improved each game. This year, he could easily average 13 points and 10 rebounds per game, making him one of the Atlantic-10's best all-around forwards.
Evans is a mediocre foul shooter (67.1 percent last season). That needs to improve because he will have dozens of opportunities this year to convert the three-point play at the foul line.
Cory Remekun (Senior, 6'8", 220 lbs.)
Billiken fans have been waiting for Remekun to take that next step in his game. There are flashes of it throughout the seasons. Remekun will come flying out of nowhere towards the glass, swatting away a ball just before it peaks, then grab the ball off the rebound to start a fast break.
But consistency has been the lacking element in Remekun's game.
Remekun has been a victim of playing time, as in not getting enough. That's caused mostly by having an undefined role on the team. Is he a reliable defender down low? Is he capable of creating his own shot? Can he score from the post?
These questions have never been answered during Remekun's tenure at SLU, and he has but one season left in his college career to do so.
I see a lot of promise in Remekun and I believe he can make huge improvements this season. He led the team in blocks last year while only playing 9.5 minutes per game. He is a reliable shooter (.542 last season), although his range is limited.
At 6'8", he needs to be a more aggressive rebounder and scorer, as he will be the second tallest player for the SLU when he's on the floor.
Cody Ellis (Senior, 6'8", 245 lbs.)
Ellis' game has not changed much since he burst onto the Billiken scene three years ago as a freshman.
Ellis is a danger from beyond the arc, and he knows it.
He led the team in three-pointers made (69) and shooting percentage (.381) last season. Ellis is a solid double-digit scorer who is capable of taking over a game (and Twitter), as evidenced by his six three-pointers against St. Joseph's last year (five in the second half).
Ellis' mid-range game is solid (48 percent shooting from inside three-point line), but it is an area that, if improved, could really make him one of the A-10's most dynamic offensive threats.
Rob Loe (Junior, 6'11", 245 lbs.)
Loe is not your traditional center. Loe's Achilles' heel is his height. Fans expect him to dominate the game just because he is the tallest guy on the court.
Loe is a little more Dirk Nowitzki then Dwight Howard.
Loe lives on the perimeter (35 percent three-point shooter last year), which is impressive for anyone, let alone someone nearly seven feet tall. Loe is also not afraid to ask for the ball down low.
I've been told that Loe looked much bigger at the Billiken Fan Fest in October. Hopefully that time in the weight room is paying off.
Loe is definitely going to need to improve on last year's numbers (five points and three rebounds per game). Also, his conditioning must improve.
Loe started all 34 games last year, yet he only averaged 16 minutes of playing time. That is likely to go up by nearly 10 minutes more per game this year.
The Billikens are counting on Loe to be the team's most improved player.
Fans should get a glimpse, especially in the nonconference season, of some Billikens who will be starters on future SLU teams. Don't expect much though, as SLU sticks pretty much with an eight or nine-man rotation.
John Manning is a 6'11" sophomore who saw scant time last season as a freshman. He's someone who needs to develop an aggressive side because he has the physical tools to shine at the college level.
Jake Barnett and Grandy Glaze are the more experienced members of the team's bench, and short of an injury, they will probably stay there this season.
Jared Drew is the frontcourt's lone freshman. He has the most promise out of this group. Majerus has compared Drew's skill set and athletic ability to Dwayne Evans.
Drew is a great defender with a long reach (6'10" wingspan) for his height (6'4"). He can rebound, shoot the three and take up space in the lane.
The Kansas Jayhawks highlight the Billikens' schedule this season
The Billikens stay close to home throughout the team's nonconference schedule, which is good because they will be without their best player for most, if not all, of that time.
The team has only one true road game, at Washington, on Nov. 28. The Bills will also travel to Kansas City for a tournament (Nov. 19, 20) that will likely call for games against Texas A&M and Kansas.
The Jayhawks offer SLU its best opponent of the season, and it's unfortunate that the Billikens will be minus its best player (Mitchell) for the team's biggest test of the year.
SLU's nonconference home schedule is highlighted by games against Valparaiso and New Mexico. Both teams, like the Billikens, are pulling in votes for the AP Top 25 poll. The Billikens get a chance to avenge last year's loss to the Lobos on another New Year's Eve matchup.
If the Bills can split the two games in Kansas City and win one of the games against Valpo and New Mexico, the team should enter conference play 11-3. They'll be 12-2 if they succeed on the road against Lorenzo Romar's Washington squad.
The recent expansion of the Atlantic-10 will offer Billiken fans some new opponents on the schedule. Butler (Jan. 31) and Virginia Commonwealth (Feb. 19) are both on the home schedule for SLU, and both newcomers enter the A-10 as AP Top 25 vote-getters.
SLU says goodbye to A-10 veterans Temple (on the road Jan. 12) and Charlotte (at home Feb. 16) as they move on to other conferences after this season.
SLU's conference road highlights include trips to Temple, Xavier and Butler. The home conference schedule offers tough matchups against St. Joseph's, Dayton and Massachusetts, among the aforementioned Butler and VCU.
Moments like this will be sorely missed, both on and off the court, for the Billikens this year.
It will definitely feel weird not seeing Coach Majerus on the SLU sidelines this season. The future of the program with Majerus beyond this year is in doubt, as Majerus' contract with the school expires at the end of the season and there has been very little news on Coach's health and progress.
Majerus' absence will surely have an effect on the team. It would be impossible for it not to.
Fans will miss seeing Coach on game days, but the players will miss Majerus even more on the practice and film days in between games.
Majerus has said repeatedly that he enjoys coaching practices much more than coaching the games. I'm sure it's hurting him to not be there with his young men as they start to reap the fruit of their labors.
Getting to the court, the team is in relatively good hands. Interim head coach Jim Crews and his top assistant, Jim Whitesell, each bring decades of head coaching experience, along with more than 700 combined victories.
As far as the game action goes, the team should not miss a beat under Crews and Whitesell.
The coaches will surely preach the habits that were so successful last year: defense, defense, defense.
The Billikens led the A-10 in scoring defense (57.6) last season. St. Bonaventure was the next closest at 65.0.
That seven-point gap between SLU and the rest of the conference more than explains how the team was able to lead the league in scoring margin (11.1), and do so by nearly five points.
No other team in the A-10 allowed fewer three-point attempts (and makes) than SLU. And only one team allowed fewer field goal attempts.
SLU's brand of defense wasn't just to make you miss your shot (although they did do that quite well), it was to prevent you from ever getting a shot off in the first place.
SLU tied for 11th in the conference last season in rebounds (32.7 per game), yet they were second in rebounds allowed (31.1 per game). That difference (+1.6) put the Billikens fifth overall in the conference.
SLU was second to Duquense in the A-10 in turnover margin and assist/turnover ratio.
Last year, the Billikens were a team that didn't make mistakes, but they made the opponent make a whole bunch of them.
The Billikens were the best defensive team in the conference last season, and with so many of the team's top scorers returning, it would be natural to see an improvement in the team's offense as well.
On the recruiting front, the team has strong pipelines on the international scene, particularly with Greece, Australia and New Zealand. SLU was one of the first programs to go looking for players in those countries, and I'm sure that will give them an edge in future recruiting classes.
The team's recent improvement and rising stature in the Atlantic-10 will only give the school more exposure, thus attracting a nationwide group of talent here in the U.S.
Not knowing exactly how Mitchell's absence will affect the Billikens, it's tough to predict anything better than 10-4 or 11-3 in the nonconference schedule.
That's unfortunate because the Bills have an opportunity to do something special this year, including running the table with victories going into the A-10 season.
If the team piles up too many losses in the nonconference schedule, that will tank the team's RPI and hurt its seeding in any postseason invitational tournament.
Media prognosticators who cover the A-10 have the Billikens finishing among the top two teams in the conference.
As an indicator of what it would take in terms of wins, over the past three seasons, the A-10 conference winner has averaged 14 victories, while 13 wins has been the average for second place.
If SLU can win 14 conference games, that puts them in range of 25 victories before the conference's postseason tournament. Throw in a couple of victories in the A-10 tournament, if not more, and the Billikens could be looking at a 28-6 win-loss record come Selection Sunday.
Twenty-eight victories, coupled with a conference regular season title and a handful of wins over very good teams, could give the Billikens a No. 5 or 6 seed in the NCAA tournament. That would be the best seed the Billikens have ever received.
If SLU can follow that up with a run to the Sweet 16 or better, the Billikens could be looking at a 30-win season.
That would surely put the Billikens back on the national map of college basketball and help spread the SLU brand even wider.