The days of 20-win seasons being a marker of major significance are a thing of the past in college basketball because there are dozens of teams each season that reach 20 but don’t play in the NCAA Tournament.
St. Louis University again found its way into that mix with a 23-11 record that looks great on paper but didn’t do anything to raise the program’s NCAA profile or increase the Atlantic 10’s coffers.
The Billikens have been racking up wins during coach Travis Ford’s six-year tenure to the point that he already is No. 5 on the school’s list of coaching victories. Given one more season, he’ll likely be No. 3.
Historically speaking, Ford has been good for SLU. But in a sport so focused on the NCAA Tournament, the final result came up short.
“Twenty-three wins is a lot, and we let some slip that we shouldn’t have,” Ford said. “But I’m more happy with the improvement of our guys. Now we have to have a group that’s focused on getting better in the offseason behind the scenes. Hopefully this is something we can build on. I’m proud of the effort, but it’s been a tough season.”
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SLU did its winning after losing Javonte Perkins to an injury for the season, a well-worn storyline that is legitimate but arguably overused. Picked to finish third in the A-10 with Perkins, the Billikens were fifth without him at 12-6.
They might well have been in the NCAA Tournament discussion if not for several games that turned into losses after SLU squandered double-digit leads, some in the second half. Auburn, UAB and Belmont stand out.
Those games came early when Ford and his staff still were reshaping the team to play without Perkins. Ultimately, Gibson Jimerson was able to transform himself into a top A-10 scorer. Francis Okoro slowly developed into one of the league’s best big men. Fred Thatch Jr. became the well-rounded contributor many thought he could be. Yuri Collins led the country in assists.
The Perkins aspect is legit because his presence could have helped seal the deal in some games as he did in previous seasons. SLU had the pieces to do that, regardless, and did a better job as the season progressed.
It was a challenging year all the way around for the program. The year started with the death of assistant coach Ford Stuen. Travis Ford lost an assistant, nephew and friend. Players lost a mentor and, in some cases, the person largely responsible for them being at SLU due to his efforts in recruitment.
“It was a hard season for a lot of reasons. I’m not talking about the coaching part,” Ford said. “It was the toughest offseason I’ve ever been through. Being around our team was fun. It’s when I’m able to get away. When I got home away from our guys, it was tough.”
There were plenty of projects to occupy time on the court. Jimerson’s progress had to be expedited to help pick up the scoring. The pressure on Collins increased as well as he became the most experienced part of the offense.
Despite losing Perkins’ production, SLU averaged 76.2 points, the most under Ford and the most in the program in more than 25 years. However, the defense was not up to the usual standards on a consistent basis, allowing opponents to make sometimes damaging runs.
SLU ended up with wins over NCAA Tournament qualifiers Boise State and Richmond and also defeated three teams that finished higher in the A-10 standings. In the end, it wasn’t enough.
Ford has a record of 112-76 in six seasons at SLU. However, the upper echelon of the conference — Davidson, Dayton, VCU and St. Bonaventure — continued to pose problems to keep the Billikens from challenging for the top of the league.
The A-10 figures to be top heavy again next season with Dayton returning a young team and others expecting to come back with most of their top weapons. As the roster now stands, SLU will be among that group.
Perkins has announced he will return. The Billikens’ top four scorers are expected back along with Collins as the leader. Meanwhile, Ford has at least two and possibly three scholarships he can fill.
Since taking over a talent-challenged roster in 2016-17 and going 12-21 to start, Ford has averaged exactly 20 wins the last five seasons. Next time around, he’ll be looking for a spot in the tournament and his first postseason win with the Billikens.