Billikens plan to break four-year NCAA Tournament drought
They’ve averaged just over 13 victories the past three seasons, but it wasn’t long ago that the Saint Louis Billikens were one of the premier mid-major programs in the country. Saint Louis earned three straight NCAA Tournament berths from 2012-14 and won its opening game in each of those appearances.
The good times could be returning. Soon.
Now in his third season, former Oklahoma State coach Travis Ford has the Billikens poised to contend for a league title and an NCAA bid for the first time since 2014. Along with returning three of its top four scorers, SLU will be sparked by a group of transfers and freshmen who should make the squad as deep and talented as any in the Atlantic 10.
At a Glance
HEAD COACH: Travis Ford
2017-18 RECORD (A-10): 17-16 (9-9)
2017-18 POSTSEASON: None
G Aaron Hines (6.1 ppg)
F Jalen Johnson (9.1 ppg, 3.8 rpg)
G Davell Roby (11.5 ppg, 2.8 rpg)
One of the most encouraging aspects of the 2017-18 season was the performance of Hasahn French, a 6'7" forward who averaged 9.3 points, 7.1 rebounds and 1.8 blocks as a freshman. What French lacked in height, he made up for in strength, as the 235-pounder routinely bullied opponents in the paint.
This season, he’ll have the luxury of playing alongside an even more imposing specimen in freshman Carte’Are Gordon, who at one time was ranked among the top 15 players in the Class of 2018 before an injury caused him to slide as a senior. Still, the 6'9", 230-pound Gordon is the most highly touted prospect to sign with the Billikens since Larry Hughes. Privately, Ford has told confidants that Gordon could be the most talented player he’s ever coached. A Saint Louis native who stunned Power 5 schools with his decision, Gordon is powerful and explosive in the paint, but the staff has also been impressed with his high basketball IQ. His ability to play — and guard — four positions should give opponents fits.
Saint Louis is also expecting big things off the bench from returning forward D.J. Foreman and South Florida transfer Luis Santos, who coaches say has a “Rico Gathers-like body” in reference to the former Baylor star turned Dallas Cowboys tight end.
Saint Louis received a huge boost in June when it signed former Drexel standout Tramaine Isabell, one of the top players on the graduate transfer market. Isabell, a point guard who played his first two seasons at Missouri, averaged 21.0 points and 7.5 rebounds for Drexel last season, after which he declared for the NBA Draft without hiring an agent. Isabell will be eligible immediately, and his presence allows returning starter Jordan Goodwin to slide into the shooting guard slot.
Goodwin led the Billikens in assists (4.0 apg) last season and ranked second on the team in scoring (11.5 ppg) behind wing Javon Bess (13.3 ppg), who is expected to be the team’s on-and-off-court leader for the second straight year. A freshman on Michigan State’s 2015 Final Four squad before transferring a year later, Bess sets the tone in practice with his intensity, and Ford has said multiple times that Bess was a key reason why SLU snapped a string of three straight losing campaigns in 2017-18.
Graduate transfer Dion Wiley, who averaged 5.8 points at Maryland last year, is expected to play extensive minutes off the bench.
The pieces are in place for Saint Louis to have its best season since winning the Atlantic 10 title in 2014. In terms of talent and depth, the Billikens are the class of the league. The question is whether Ford will be able to form a cohesive unit and create locker room harmony with a roster that features at least 10 players good enough to warrant quality minutes. A non-conference schedule that features Butler, Florida State, Seton Hall and Houston will test SLU early. If everything comes together, Saint Louis could hear its name called on Selection Sunday.
Postseason Prediction: First Four
Atlantic 10 Prediction: 2nd