March Madness Sleeper Series: Why Saint Louis Is a Final Four Dark Horse

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March Madness Sleeper Series: Why Saint Louis Is a Final Four Dark Horse

Rick Majerus was a wildly entertaining man. He had no issue with nudity. His language was occasionally dirty, but the messages he delivered were always insightful and usually made you laugh. 

College basketball lost one of its greatest characters on Dec. 1, 2012, when Majerus lost his long battle with heart problems. 

What the colorful coach left with us was a great college basketball team, perfecting the principles that Majerus preached. 

Only unlike Majerus, the Saint Louis Billikens are kind of boring. 

They don't have a star. They don't do anything particularly fancy or fast-paced. They guard. They run a good offense. (You can hear Majerus emphasizing the "O".) And at the end of the day, they just beat you because they're better and more sound than you. 

By the time the month ends, you'll know all about the team now coached by Jim Crews. You'll probably even root for the Billikens. Everyone loves a good story. 

This one could stretch into April. 

 

Why Saint Louis Is Dangerous

1. Billikens Get Good Shots

What makes the Bills so good on the offensive end is that they can beat you in so many different ways. 

You cannot lock in on any one player. Dwayne Evans, who is sort of a three-four hybrid, is the team's leading scorer at just better than 12 points per game. Saint Louis has three players who average double figures and six who average more than seven points per game. 

Evans summed it up well to Sports Illustrated

Not to be too cliché, but we are really just kind of one team. We don't have any selfish guys. All the scoring is spread around. We play defense as a team. Obviously there have been some heated exchanges in practice, but for the most part, we just play together. It's been growing over the years, honestly, and this year is just the culmination of that. After facing so much adversity early on in the season, it's kind of propelled us even farther.

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Majerus was a master at running good offense that highlighted his team's best attributes, and this team is still running all of Majerus' stuff. 

The Billikens are deliberate and also opportunistic in their sets. They can take advantage of bad matchups all over the court. Cody Ellis, the team's second-leading scorer, comes off the bench as a stretch 4 and forces opposing big men to guard him outside. 

Center Rob Loe, who is 6'11", can also shoot the three. Evans, at 6'5", is probably the toughest matchup and that's likely why he leads the team in scoring. 

If you put a smaller player on Evans or even someone his own size, the Bills will post him up, as they do here against Butler. 

It's also not a good idea to put a bigger player on Evans, because then he'll go out to the perimeter and slash. He has the ability to drive either direction, finish with either hand, and he shoots 68 percent at the rim, according to Hoop-Math.com

Here is Evans taking advantage of a hard closeout and driving past Butler's Roosevelt Jones.

SLU's guards all can shoot from the perimeter and also have the ability to drive, so it's not like you can help off of them to contain the inside-out big men. 

The most talented guard is Kwamain Mitchell, who missed the first 11 games with a foot injury. The Bills are 15-2 since his return. 

They already did a good job of not giving the ball away before Mitchell returned, but their ability to almost always get a shot has improved, as Mitchell is the team's best ball-handler and penetrator

With Mitchell, the Billikens are turning it over on only 15.6 percent of their possessions, which would be tied for fourth-best in the country through March 4, according to KenPom.com

Against VCU, the best team at forcing turnovers in the country, the Billikens gave it away only eight times. It was only the second game all season VCU hasn't been able to force double-digit turnovers.

The other team to finish with only eight turnovers was Duke. 

So you cannot force the Billikens into mistakes. You cannot key in on one guy. And you cannot bank on the Bills to take questionable shots. 

The postseason usually turns the game into more of a half-court contest, and few teams are as well-equipped to play that style as SLU.  

 

2. The Billikens Play Stingy Team Defense

Similar to how opposing defenses have to account for every SLU offensive player, there is not a weak link on the defense either. 

The Bills put on a clinic night in and night out on how to play great team defense. 

They rarely gamble, yet they apply so much pressure and their rotations are so good that opponents turn it over on more than 23 percent of their possessions.

The clip below is a great example how great positioning and rotations can turn into a turnover. Notice that had Butler completed the pass to Andrew Smith, SLU's Grandy Glaze had already rotated under the basket and would have cut off Smith. 

The Billikens also have great size, especially for a mid-major. According to KenPom.com, their effective height ranks 28th in the country. 

The picture that has been painted is a team that relies on great execution to win. That's true in many ways, but the Billikens have great athletes too. Their guards are quick and strong on the perimeter, so you cannot just spread the floor and hope to beat them off the dribble. 

You have to run action, take good shots and out-execute Saint Louis to win. That's why the Billikens have been so consistent. Few teams can even come close to accomplishing all three. 

 

3. Billikens Dominate a Strong A-10

Quick, before you look at the chart below, answer this: Which conference (as it currently stands) has the most Final Four appearances since 2010? 

Yes, it's not the Big Ten or Big East or ACC that leads the way; it's the Atlantic 10.

Those Final Four schools that currently represent the A-10 (Butler and VCU) could move elsewhere by the time a new school year begins next fall, and neither was in the conference at the time; however, they are this year and the A-10 is as good as it has ever been. 

Butler has wins against Gonzaga and Indiana, currently the top two teams in the AP poll. VCU played Duke close in November and after slapping around Butler 84-52 on March 2, the Rams will likely be a trendy pick in the tourney.

Here's how those schools have fared against the Billikens:

  • Saint Louis 75, Butler 58—Jan. 31 at Saint Louis
  • Saint Louis 76, VCU 62—Feb. 19 at Saint Louis
  • Saint Louis 65, Butler 61—Feb. 22 at Butler

The Atlantic 10 is ranked as the seventh-best conference by the RPI—one spot ahead of the SEC—and could place as many as five teams in the NCAA tournament. 

So if the A-10 is on par or close to on par with the power six conferences, the team that has dominated the league should probably be considered a Final Four threat.

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Saint Louis has undoubtedly been the A-10's best team, outscoring league opponents by better than 16 points per 100 possessions. That's better than how Miami has fared against the ACC, and the ACC will likely get fewer teams in the tourney than the A-10. 

If you're going by the eye test, a good pair of eyes to trust would be Butler coach Brad Stevens'. Stevens obviously knows what it takes to make a Final Four, and he's a believer in SLU

Here's what he said on Dan Dakich's radio show on Feb. 20, two days before his team lost at home to Saint Louis:

I've tried my best to tell everybody how good they were and nobody seems to be really paying as much attention as they should. I legitimately think they're a Final Four candidate. I think they're physical, they're big, they're deep, they can score in the post. They can shoot the ball. They've got good guards. Their guards post. Their bigs can shoot. It's just a completely well-rounded team, and oh by the way, the way that they defend has really dominated our league up to this point to be quite candid.

That sounds a lot like the teams Stevens molded into Final Four squads: physical, well-rounded and great defensively. 

After playing against a loaded A-10 this season, you can add one more descriptor: battle-tested. 

 

Teams Saint Louis Could Beat in NCAA Tournament

How many games will Saint Louis win in the NCAA tournament?

Submit Vote vote to see results

1. New Mexico: The RPI loves the Lobos and they are likely to be a high seed. They already had the displeasure of playing Saint Louis, losing 60-46 on Dec. 31 at SLU

2. Louisville: The Cardinals thrive on forcing turnovers and turning those giveaways into fast-break opportunities. Saint Louis is not going to make mistakes and has guards quick enough to stay in front of Peyton Siva and Russ Smith. 

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