St. Louis Basketball: Getting to Know This Year's Cinderella Story

Ryan BothmannSenior Analyst IIFebruary 10, 2014

Feb 8, 2014; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Saint Louis Billikens guard Jordair Jett (5) brings the ball up court during the second half against the La Salle Explorers at Tom Gola Arena. St. Louis defeated La Salle 65-63. Mandatory Credit: Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports
Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports

It has now been 61 days since the St. Louis Billikens lost a game. Over that stretch they have won 16 straight games, started off A-10 play with a 9-0 record and have now climbed to No. 12 in the AP poll, their highest ranking since the 1964-65 season when they were ranked No. 4 in the country.

The run St. Louis has been on has been very impressive and as the wins have piled up, more and more people have begun to take notice of this mid-major from the Midwest.

St. Louis fans obviously know all about their team, but the rest of the country needs to familiarize themselves with the Billikens before they bust some brackets in March.

Certainly this is not your typical Cinderella team. After all, the Billikens moved to No. 12 in the AP poll today, but they still are not garnering the attention they deserve. By large portions of the country the Billikens are still looked at as that decent mid-major who just cannot compete with the top teams like Syracuse, Duke, Michigan State, Kansas and Kentucky.

Those people could not be more wrong, though.

The Billikens hang their hat on their defense. With only 58.8 points allowed per game, St. Louis ranks eighth in the country in points allowed per game. Every player on the court makes it his job to create as much pressure on the man he is guarding as he possibly can.

The team is led out front by a pair of stingy senior guards—Jordair Jett and Mike McCall Jr. Jett and McCall are veterans on this team and have both averaged well over 20 minutes per game in all four of their years at St. Louis. That gives them not only regular season experience but NCAA tournament experience as well, since the Billikens have won a game in each of the last two NCAA tournaments.

Feb 8, 2014; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Saint Louis Billikens forward Dwayne Evans (21) is defended by La Salle Explorers center Steve Zack (0) during the second half at Tom Gola Arena. St. Louis defeated La Salle 65-63. Mandatory Credit: Howard Smith-USA TOD
Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports

The experience does not stop there for St. Louis though. The front court is full of seniors as well.

Dwayne Evans, like Jett and McCall, has averaged over 20 minutes per game in each of his four years at St. Louis and is the team's leading scorer this season. Rob Loe has averaged over 20 minutes per game in each of the last two seasons as well as played significant minutes in his freshman and sophomore seasons.

Forward Jake Barnett rounds out the starting five and is a senior. Barnett transferred from Toledo after his freshman year, where he averaged 34.9 minutes per game, and has been in the St. Louis rotation ever since.

The experience does not stop there, though. The St. Louis bench is loaded with talented underclassmen who provide the Billikens with a deep rotation of players they can go to in any situation.

Sophomore guard Austin McBroom, along with junior forwards Grandy Glaze and John Manning, get the bulk of the minutes off the bench for St. Louis and are the future of this team next season since so many key pieces will be lost to graduation. Right now all three are gaining quality experience and all of them can be trusted to make big plays in key situations.

There are lots of teams in the country who feature lots of seniors on their teams, however.

What makes this team so special?

The Billikens not only have the experience and the strong defense, but they have the offense as well. If you look at the stats, they certainly will not blow you away. St. Louis ranks 195th in points per game with 70.9 and ranks 197th in field goal percentage as they shoot the ball at 44 percent from the floor.

The numbers are very average, but if you watch their style of play you can see how clutch their offense is. The grind-it-out style of play on defense has been nothing new for the Billikens. Even under the late Rick Majerus, the Billikens were all about dedication to the defensive end of the floor.

Now when the key situations come around, the offense delivers. Just look at their last game. With the game tied in its final seconds, Jett calmly ran down the clock and then drove the lane for an easy game winning layup with only seconds remaining.

The Billikens still have their problems on offense and can go very cold from the floor at times like any team, but when that happens they fall back on their outstanding defense and allow that to frustrate opponents, which ultimately leads to easy buckets on the other side of the court.

Now that you have gotten to know the Billikens very briefly, you may think that this does not sound like much of a Cinderella story. After all, they are ranked No. 12 in the country and are one of the top defensive teams in all the land as well.

The reason St. Louis is a Cinderella team is because of where they came from and what lies ahead in their future.

After finishing last season ranked No. 16 in the country, the Billikens were nowhere to be found in the rankings when this college basketball season started almost four months ago. In fact, St. Louis only had three votes in the AP poll when the preseason rankings came out. When Week 4 of the AP poll came around, the Billikens did not have any votes.

It wasn't until January 6 when we even saw St. Louis in the AP poll voting once again. That week they had 19 votes.

That is when the climb to the top began. The Billikens won their ninth game in a row at Dayton on January 11 and found themselves ranked No. 24 in the AP poll two days later. After extending their winning streak to 11 games, the Billikens climbed to No. 19 in the rankings. Four more wins shot the Billikens up to No. 13 in the rankings.

Then on Feb. 10 the Billikens moved up to No. 12 in the rankings, their highest ranking since the 1964-65 season.

Feb 8, 2014; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Saint Louis Billikens head coach Jim Crews during the first half against the La Salle Explorers at Tom Gola Arena. St. Louis defeated La Salle 65-63. Mandatory Credit: Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports
Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports

After the death of head coach Majerus last season, Jim Crews had to take control of this program and has done an unbelievable job with this team from day one. He has taught them to battle through adversity by staying together and relying on hard work, which they exhibit in their tough grind-it-out style of defense.

This is not your typical March Madness underdog. The Billikens are using this season to prove that they are one of the top teams in the country and as the wins continue to pile up, the Billikens will only gain more and more respect.

Syracuse, Kentucky, Kansas, Duke and Arizona can have their freshmen phenoms. The Billikens have five seniors who have all been to the NCAA tournament and know what it takes to win games at the highest level.

This is not just a feel good story of a team who rallied around the death of their head coach last season and is going to win a couple tournament games to feel good about themselves.

This team has the ability to take their Cinderella status not just into the Sweet Sixteen or the Elite Eight, but beyond that. Maybe even to a championship.

Do you think it sounds ridiculous?

Maybe, but that's what the Billikens want you to think.

This team has won 47 of their last 53 games for a reason.

They are 22-2 this season for a reason.

In St. Louis their fans use the hashtag #RiseOfTheBillikens after every win.

You can certainly expect to see a lot of those hashtags once March rolls around because the Billikens are ready to prove this year that they belong with the elite teams in the country.