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SLU v Cardinal Stritch

SLU guard Kwamain Mitchell during an exhibition game between SLU and Cardinal Stritch Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2011 at Chaifetz Arena in St. Louis, Mo. Photo by Chris Lee, clee@post-dispatch.com

It’s been seven weeks since St. Louis University’s basketball season began. But for Kwamain Mitchell, tonight is opening night.

SLU’s starting point guard and preseason all-conference selection, who has been out since the second day of practice because of a broken bone in his left foot, thinks he could have up to 20 minutes of playing time when SLU plays Southern Illinois University Edwardsville tonight at Chaifetz Arena.

“(Wednesday), I practiced with the guys,” Mitchell said before practice Thursday, “and I feel great. I’m excited to be out there. Instead of talking on the sidelines, it was better to be talking with them while actually on the court. I feel confident I’ll be ready to contribute somewhat to the team (tonight). ... Guys came up to me after drills and said, ‘Kwam, we’re glad to have you back.’ One of the managers said he was excited to give me the No. 3 (water) bottle. Everybody’s excited. I’m excited. ”

“He wasn’t out for the full practice,” interim SLU coach Jim Crews said, “but he went through it and to my eyes he looked good. I’m not the doctor, but from my eyes he looked good. What’s hard is the conditioning situation. You can condition nonbasketball in the pool, on the treadmill. There are a million ways to do it, but it’s different from basketball conditioning.”

Getting Mitchell back is a big step for the Billikens, who have had to give Mike McCall and Jordair Jett most of the guard minutes in the opening part of the season and forced Crews to at times use them and others out of position.

Though relatively easy wins in the past three games have allowed Crews to give them more rest, the schedule is about to get hard again. After SIUE, New Mexico, which is just outside the AP top 25, comes to town. Then on Jan. 10, the Atlantic 10 season begins.

“We’ll have better rhythm in terms of substituting,” Crews said. “Guys will play fewer minutes in terms of stretches. You look at the stat sheet and guys may have played 20 minutes, but he may have played eight in a row.”

Mitchell was second on the team in scoring last season, with 12.4 points per game, and led the team in assists and steals. He led the Atlantic 10 in assist-turnover ratio at 2.1-1. While McCall has stepped in well as point guard, Mitchell’s playmaking ability and cool on-court presence is a key factor for SLU.

The road back has gone smoothly for Mitchell. At every step, he’s been right on schedule, as he went from surgery to crutches to boot to rehabilitation. Though the school never put a time frame on when Mitchell would be back, it was expected it would be by the start of league play, a crucial point for SLU’s NCAA hopes, and he will hit that with two weeks to spare.

“It was tough, and it was fun at the same time,” he said of the rehab. “I could have been ready last week, but we wanted to be cautious about reinjuring it or me not playing close to my ability.”

Mitchell said he has no apprehension on the court – though he did say if he were to have a fast break tonight, he would lay it in rather than dunk – and thinks that after the SIUE game, he’ll be ready to go all out for the New Mexico game on New Year’s Eve, SLU’s last major test before conference play begins.

“For me at this point, I don’t care how many minutes I play,” he said. “I just want to be back with the guys. After that, they say there’s no leash any more. I’ll go from there.”

SLU got through its Mitchell-less period at 8-3, which might be only one loss worse than what would have been expected of a fully healthy SLU team. SLU might have been able to grab a win at Washington with Mitchell on the court (SLU lost 66-61) and who knows what could have happened in the Santa Clara debacle, a 72-64 loss in which SLU trailed by as many as 20 points.

“I think we’ve done really well,” Crews said. “They’ve been very persistent. Except for one game, we played hard. We haven’t played well all the time, even in the games we’ve won. But with all the moving parts, all the things that have gone on, the guys playing extra minutes, the guys playing out of position at times, we’ve done very, very well. I’m pleased with them.”

SIUE is 4-5, but has only two wins over NCAA Division I schools. (It’s most recent win was over Robert Morris-Springfield, an NAIA school.) Forward Jerome Jones is averaging 16.4 points for SIUE. Its coach, Lennox Forrester, was at Evansville when Crews was coaching there, but never played because of a career-ending injury. For 10 years, he was an administrative assistant and assistant coach at Evansville.

“There’s no guy who’s a better guy,” Crews said of Forrester. “He’s a tremendous coach. There’s no one is a better human than Lennox Forrester. He’s one of my all-time favorite guys. He’s a very compassionate guy, a very trustworthy guy who loves coaching and does a great job with kids. It brings back a lot of good memories about Lennox.”