As the clock ticked down near the end of Missouri’s demoralizing overtime loss at Kentucky, ESPN’s Dick Vitale took a few seconds to pay tribute to the St. Louis U. basketball team.
Vitale was sincere in his praise of SLU; he wasn’t trying to zing Mizzou or MU fans. But his compliments fired up the SLU faithful, and for good reason.
Imagine that: As Mizzou squandered another open-invitation chance to win an SEC road game, MU fans had to listen to Vitale pump up the Billikens.
SLU and Mizzou offer a compelling contrast these days. Their differences can’t be ignored.
The Billikens and the Tigers don’t play the same style of basketball and are dissimilar in composition.
SLU’s roster was largely recruited by the late Rick Majerus and schooled to fit his hardcore philosophy. Jim Crews has done a superb job of moving the Billikens, 10-2, into first place in the Atlantic 10 conference.
SLU has a veteran group that’s been fine-tuned in the Majerus system. This cast has been playing together for a while, and the Billikens’ chemistry is a substantial asset.
“Our coaches do a great job of teaching us,” SLU senior Cody Ellis said. “But as players we do a good job of teaching each other.”
Last season SLU won 25 games and knocked off Memphis in the NCAA Tournament. Coming into this season the Billikens had to replace only one primary player, power forward Brian Conklin, who provided 15 percent of the team’s minutes.
Overall, SLU returned players who combined to play 76 percent of the minutes from last season, and their reliable blend makes a difference.
This is why SLU seamlessly adjusts to flaws, making swift and alert in-game adjustments. This is why the Billikens consistently demonstrate unshakable poise under pressure, maintaining cool heads on the road, finding ways to grind out victories when pushed to the tipping point of close games.
The foundation isn’t as nearly firm for Missouri, which had to deal with significant losses from the team that went 30-5 to earn a No. 2 seed in the 2012 NCAA Tournament.
Missouri coach Frank Haith had to replace the bulk of that team’s presence and production. The departed Marcus Denmon, Kim English, Ricardo Ratliffe, Michael Dixon, Matt Pressey and Steve Moore combined to contribute 84 percent of the minutes, 90.5 percent of the points, 60 percent of the assists and 76 percent of the rebounds in 2011-2012.
This season Haith had no choice but to assemble new parts, and the pieces don’t always mesh. The Tigers must depend on the services of five transfers: guards Keion Bell, Jabari Brown and Earnest Ross and big men Alex Oriakhi and Tony Criswell. They’ve combined for 56 percent of the team’s minutes this season.
Another 15 percent of the minutes have been turned in by freshmen Negus Webster-Chan, Stefan Jankovic and Ryan Rosburg. Moreover, senior forward Laurence Bowers missed all of last season with a knee injury, and he’s searching for consistency since returning from a different injury suffered Jan. 8.
I believe someone said this on a recent Mizzou broadcast: Missouri has talented players, but it’s almost as if they all speak different languages.
If you step back and think about it, why would we expect Mizzou to function as smoothly as SLU, especially on the road?
SLU has established a good homecourt advantage but doesn’t lose form away from Chaifetz Arena. When confronted in hostile arenas, the Billikens don’t alter their personality or stray from fundamental strengths.
Most of all, the Billikens remain calm. In their current nine-game winning streak — which includes five road wins — SLU is a plus-54 in the turnover differential, and that makes a huge difference.
On defense, SLU digs in and doesn’t yield. On the other end, the Billikens patiently move the basketball around, scrambling the opponent’s defense until an attractive shot surfaces.
The face of Missouri basketball is junior point guard Phil Pressey, who has more talent than any player on the Mizzou or SLU roster.
But Pressey is like the quarterback who tries to thread a pass to a well-covered receiver. (Interception.) He’s the line-drive hitter who lunges at pitches with the game on the line, trying to hit a home run when a routine base hit will do. (Strikeout.)
You don’t see much of that from St. Louis U. The SLU guards are quick to accelerate but rarely spin out of control. Goodness, this team committed only four turnovers in defeating No. 15 Butler in a raucous road setting Friday.
Mizzou doesn’t possess SLU’s steadiness under pressure. That explains why there’s such a disparity in each team’s road performance, with Missouri flopping at 1-6 in SEC road games and SLU going 5-1 on the road in A-10 action.
With a 15-0 record at Mizzou Arena, the Tigers obviously are more confident and bold at home. But they’re wobbly on the road, often succumbing to the mental errors and defensive lapses.
The vacations on defense bug me the most.
I’m plenty patient in understanding why Missouri’s collection of transfers and loose parts lacks the cohesion that works for SLU. But there’s no excuse for MU’s faintness of heart in playing defense away from Mizzou Arena.
That isn’t a problem for the Billikens. Home or road, location doesn’t matter.
“We come with the same mind-set every game,” Dwayne Evans said. “We pressure. We make people play against five guys on defense and don’t give up too many easy buckets.”
With an NCAA Tournament spot on the line, Mizzou still has time to change. The Tigers should look 120 miles east to St. Louis to see how it’s done.