It was high comedy on Sunday when the brackets revealed that Memphis and Saint Louis were forced to play each other in the round of 64. I haven’t done the research, but it would be hard for any previous round-of-64 game to top this one in the overall strength of the competing teams.
Once my laughter died down, I began to truly feel sorry for Saint Louis. It has been a pretty amazing year for the Billikens, accompanied by no recognition whatsoever. For some context, let’s review the Rick Majerus era at SLU.
AdjO AdjD Rank Rank 2012 36 10 2011 242 47 2010 190 29 2009 192 117 2008 194 103
It took Majerus a couple of seasons to successfully implement his trademark defense that does everything in its power to take away fast breaks and three-point attempts. However, the offense showed no signs of life during his first four seasons. What changed this season? Absolutely nothing in terms of the roster. OK, they did get point-guard Kwamain Mitchell back following his one-year exile from the team. But Mitchell played big-time minutes on the ’09 and ’10 teams that also struggled to score.
It’s amazing that the same roster that produced an inept offense last season en route to a 12-19 record can earn a nine-seed this season, and skill-wise, be considered under-seeded. What’s more is that not a single Billiken has a profile on DraftExpress. It’s not just that there isn’t a future draft pick on this team, it’s that there isn’t a player that NBA folks are even considering for employment. And yet, somehow it’s played like one of the best 25 or so teams in the nation.
For whatever reason, Majerus failed to
earn get consideration for national coach of the year. Not only that, he didn’t even win his own conference’s award. And now, with one last shot to get some notoriety through a good performance in the tournament, he has to face the toughest eight-seed ever put in the draw. (OK, 1991 Georgetown might have a case.)
Naturally, I have sympathy for Memphis, too. They aren’t getting a break here, either. But Memphis has recently been in the national title game, and they are likely to have very successful seasons in the near future. Can the same be said for SLU? Considering the spontaneous combustion that occurred this season, I’m skeptical that Rick Majerus will preside over another team this good before he retires. While the Billikens return most of their roster next season, they do lose their most dependable offensive player in Brian Conklin.
Majerus’ stubborn devotion to a system that isn’t terribly exciting to watch has been maddening in recent years. A methodical system is one thing, but when it leads to a bunch of losses, it’s just boring. I attended his fourth home game as SLU’s head coach and it was a depressing sight lacking any entertainment value whatsoever. SLU and Long Beach combined to score 100 points in front of 17,000 empty seats. The Billikens were seven games away from scoring 20 points against George Washington, setting the shot-clock era record for fewest points in a game. Repeat that for four consecutive seasons.
But I can admire someone who is exceedingly stubborn, too. To muddle through four awful seasons and not change how you do business despite all sorts of back-seat driving impresses me in some sense. Take whomever you want for coach of the year, but it’s hard to believe there was a better coaching job this season than what occurred at Saint Louis.
Whether or not he deserved more recognition this season, there is no denying Rick Majerus can coach the game of basketball. For example, he once took a team whose third-best player was Hanno Mottola and beat a team whose third-best player was Miles Simon by 25 to earn a berth in the Final Four. Majerus might need less talent to win that any other coach in the country. I’m being presumptuous but perhaps the way things have unfolded this season is exactly how Rick Majerus wants it, because he has the opportunity to prove exactly that. On Friday, he’ll take a team whose third-best player is some dude named Cody Ellis against a team whose third-best player is Tarik Black, a projected future first-round pick.
If his team wins, Majerus can show the world yet again that he doesn’t need five-star talent to win, and if his team loses, that’s exactly what you’d expect of a team whose third-best player is Cody Ellis. Either way, it makes Friday night’s game the most compelling game of the round of 64* for me. And it tells me there’s no need to feel sorry for Saint Louis, after all.
P.S. You want to know the Majerus basketball philosophy? These three promotional videos for EA Sports produced nearly a decade ago will get you up to speed in 90 seconds. Methodically wait for a good shot on offense, and prevent catch-and-shoots on defense. Voila! Now you know what to expect Friday.
*With the exception of whichever game features the 16-seed winning, of course.