By Jon Rothstein
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The call lasted only about ten minutes, but it was long enough to hear the excitement in Rick Majerus’ voice.
It was right around the time of June’s NBA draft and Majerus was beyond upbeat — he was downright giddy. The legendary coach, who had spent the last five years rebuilding Saint Louis knew that the upcoming season was the one he was working towards since he took over the Billikens program in 2007.
He had experience, he had players, and most of all, he had a buzz surrounding his program for the first time time since he arrived in the Atlantic 10. Fresh off a 26 win season, one that saw Saint Louis push Michigan State to the brink before losing in the third round of the NCAA Tournament, Majerus was ready to once again take an obscure program and make them a national factor.
“The rebuilding is done here,” Majerus told me that day. “I have players now. I’m going to have a chance every year.”
The Billikens may very well get that chance thanks to Majerus’ sweat and equity — unfortunately he won’t.
In late August, Saint Louis announced that Majerus will miss the upcoming season with a heart issue. College basketball will miss one of its greatest characters over the next six months, especially with the augmented value of the Atlantic 10. Multiple times since the end of last season, Majerus and I talked about the depth of the league with the additions of Butler and VCU. We discussed the possibility of the conference receiving five or six bids to the NCAA Tournament and where and where not to eat when the Billikens were on the road traveling.
His presence will be missed. His concepts though, will still be in place.
“Rick’s footprints are already in the system we have here,” Saint Louis interim coach Jim Crews said. “We’re not changing anything. We may tweak things but that’s the nature of any season. Our guys are experienced and vested in this system. They’re ready for what’s ahead.”
Even without Majerus, the Billikens enter the new look Atlantic 10 as the clear favorite. Saint Louis lost veteran big man Brian Conklin but they return several key pieces including a fifth-year point guard in Kwamain Mitchell.
“They’re clearly the best team in our league,” St. Joseph’s coach Phil Martelli said of Saint Louis. “It’s all because of what they do defensively. They don’t allow you to score the ball.”
Crews praised the offseason work by veterans Rob Loe, Mike McCall, and Cody Ellis while pointing out that rugged forward Dwayne Evans had made a jump since the end of last season.
“He kept getting stronger and he had a pretty good presence about himself at the rim,” Crews said of Evans, who averaged 7.9 points and 7.3 rebounds per game last year as a sophomore. “We’ve got good guards and that’s important. Kwamain Mitchell knows the system well and Keith Carter is a freshman but he’s doing a really good job so far. Replacing the wisdom that Brian Conklin and Kyle Cassity gave us last season will be the hard part. They had a coach’s mentality during the game and were really an extension of the staff on the floor.”
Over the summer, Majerus raved about the potential of 6-11 sophomore center John Manning and he could be in the mix for an expanded role. Forwards Grandy Glaze and Cody Remekun also figure to have a chance to earn minutes as reserves and Jake Barnett could be a bit of an “x-factor” off the bench thanks to his shot making ability.
Without Majerus on the sidelines, there may not be the same intrigue from the periphery in regards to Saint Louis but Crews is more than capable of handling the challenge that lies ahead. A former player and assistant for Bob Knight at Indiana, Crews was a head coach at both Evansville and Army for a total of 24 years and was an integral part of the Billikens success last season.
Add that to a seasoned rotation of Mitchell, McCall, Jordair Jett, Loe, Evans, and Ellis and you can see why the hopes are still high surrounding this team.
“We’ve have high expectations and we’re not denying that,” Crews said. “We know we need to keep an even keel. We’re going to plug away like a tortoise. Even if we expect to have a good season, we can’t do anything other than focus on the next thing that’s in front of us. We’ll take things one day at a time and keep plugging away.”
How far do you expect the Billikens to go? Be heard in the comments below…