The opportunity to start practice Tuesday might have been tempting for Travis Ford given that St. Louis University will have seven new players for the 2019-20 basketball season.
But SLU’s fourth-year coach was willing to wait until Friday after laying the groundwork with his newcomers in recent months and knowing that he has a few veterans who will not let the others rest once the real work begins.
Even by waiting three days, Ford will open practice in September for the first time in his coaching career, a move made possible by recently altered NCAA rules.
Moving forward, Ford faces a balancing act of relying heavily on Jordan Goodwin, Hasahn French and Fred Thatch Jr. and knowing that he needs big contributions from some of his five freshmen and two transfers.
“When you have seven new players, it’s essential that the returning players set a tone early,” Ford said. “They’ve done that. I think all the newcomers see the kind of culture we’re trying to build and see this why we were able to experience a little bit of success last year.”
On a team with one senior — transfer Tay Weaver — Goodwin and French are the most experienced returning players. What SLU accomplishes will depend greatly on what they do as juniors.
Goodwin has played 61 games and 2,098 minutes, averaging 12.9 points, 8.9 rebounds and 4.3 assists in two seasons. French has played 68 games and 2,066 minutes, averaging 9.3 points and 7.8 rebounds.
They reflect what SLU has become: a physical, gritty presence in the Atlantic 10.
“Right now it’s me and ‘Has’ as far as who these guys look at for an example and who they need to follow,” Goodwin said. “I feel if things start going wrong, ‘Has’ and I will be the first ones looked at after Coach Ford.”
They have been starters from the beginning of their careers. Along with Thatch, they likely have three starting jobs locked down. But there’s little experience after that. Weaver played 67 college games at Eastern Kentucky. KC Hankton and Demarius Jacobs were around last season but dealt with injuries most of the time.
They will compete with five freshmen and junior college transfer Javonte Perkins for playing time. And there are a lot of minutes up for grabs. The leadership roles, however, are taken.
“I feel I’ve been a leader since freshman year,” French said. “I feel I’ve had a big role since freshman year also. But it’s more amplified now, and these guys look for me and Jordan to lead them. My game has progressed so I know I can do a lot more than I did last year.”
SLU lost four seniors after winning the Atlantic 10 tournament and reaching the first round of the NCAA Tournament last season. Three played significant roles and the Billikens lost a lot of scoring and court time with their graduations.
Ford did what he could to play catch-up over the summer in the limited workout opportunities allowed by the NCAA.
“What we tried through the summer and preseason since school started was to introduce a lot of things without breaking it down,” Ford said. “They have an understanding that we’re going to press a little more, but we haven’t broken it down. They know where to be on offense and defense. Now we have to go back and break it down when we get 20 hours a week. When you have seven new players, it goes slow.”
It will be especially interesting to see how the offense develops because Goodwin and French are the only proven scorers. Weaver has potential to contribute, especially with his background as a 3-point shooter. Thatch averaged 19 minutes as a freshman but only 4.3 points.
There are many other questions. Will Perkins’ scoring ability translate from junior college to Division I? Can freshman Gibson Jimerson shoot anywhere near as effectively as the coaching staff hopes? Will one injury-riddled season help Hankton and Jacobs move into bigger scoring roles?
“A lot of our success is how Jordan Goodwin, Hasahn French and Fred Thatch lead our team,” Ford said “I’m not saying that to put pressure on them. I’m saying it because I have great faith in them and know they can do it. I have great expectations for this team.”