Without a concrete measuring stick by which to gauge his team’s toughness, Travis Ford can only base his assessment by what he sees on the court.
After St. Louis University’s latest win, against High Point, Ford only knew that something was lacking — something he’s been searching for through five games.
“Our toughness meter had better start rising quickly,” he said.
It’s a characteristic that the Billikens had in abundance last season, and all of Ford’s teams at SLU have possessed regardless of their level of skill.
With five freshmen and seven new players, that might have been expected. But starting with Saturday’s game against Belmont at Chaifetz Arena, Ford expects to see an upgrade in many areas that define toughness to him.
“It’s shown in a lot of different ways, mentally and physically,” he said. “Being ready to play is toughness. Getting a 50-50 ball is toughness. Competing on the backboard is toughness and finishing defensive plays when the shot clock gets down to three or four seconds.
“We’ve got to get everyone on the same page. This is new to about six of them. This time last year they could pick and choose when they played hard. Can’t do it here. It won’t work.”
Ford can talk about it and he can show what he wants in practice, but it will be up to the experienced players to set the tone.
Before a rebounding block out drill at practice Friday, Ford told the Billikens he wanted to hear them as they slammed into blocking pads held by managers. He showed them by delivering a couple of right hands to the pads that would have pleased a boxing trainer.
Some players responded — such as Fred Thatch Jr., whose first block out sent a manager backpedaling 15 feet.
Ford knows he’ll get the level of intensity he wants from guys such as Hasahn French, Jordan Goodwin and Thatch. He wants it to become contagious.
“I can just continue to play my game. My game shows toughness each and every day,” French said. “In practice and in games I try to show toughness and be vocal on the court. I know we’ve got a lot of new guys, so they’ll get it. We try to be good leaders for these these guys. We just have to do it on a more consistent basis.”
Right now Ford is trying to pull it out of the freshmen and a few others, many of whom were big scorers at previous stops and not called upon to play tough defense, rebound or dive for loose balls.
“In high school I was more of a scorer and wasn’t looked to for rebounding or defense,” freshman guard Gibson Jimerson said. “He’s constantly getting on me about boxing out, improving my defense and being physical. I think it will come the more we play, but it’s definitely a little new for me.”
Javon Bess set the tone the previous two seasons as SLU gained its reputation for defense and rebounding. SLU’s defensive rebounding has been a particular disappointment for Ford.
Against High Point, he said the Billikens failed to win as many as 15 loose balls that could have gone to either team.
“I told the guys it’s unusual around here,” Ford said. “The last three teams here, one thing about them was you knew you were in for a battle. We’ve had coaches tell us ‘We don’t want to look at you (on tape) during scouting because of how tough you play.’”
SLU was put to the test by a big, physical team from Seton Hall on Sunday and didn’t respond as well as Ford would have liked.
After the game against High Point, the schedule is about to get more challenging with a strong Belmont team and then a trip to Boston College followed by the likes of Auburn and Kansas State in December.
Goodwin said that toughness would be a topic of conversation at a team meeting Friday night and summed up the message this way:
“It’s just getting the guys to buy into how hard they have to play for 40 minutes,” he said.