At season’s end, the most glaring need for St. Louis University’s men’s basketball team was easy to identify. The question was how the necessary players were going to be obtained.
Hasahn French was left as the only remaining big body after a graduation, a defection and a mysterious departure. To fill the holes, coach Travis Ford ended up with two prep school centers who will bring the Billikens considerable height but not college experience.
What Ford does think he has obtained is the type of players who will help SLU continue to build on its reputation as a physical, aggressive bunch.
Jimmy Bell Jr. is a 6-foot-10, 280-pounder, who Ford calls a “space eater.” Madani Diarra is 6-11 and 245. And they will be be given the task of eating up minutes at center as freshmen unless Ford opts to go with a smaller lineup at times.
“Both of them have their best days ahead of them, which you say about a lot of bigs,” Ford said. “Jimmy’s got great hands and feet and a great work ethic. Madani is probably a little more athletic and he’s physically imposing to an extent. They will help us continue with the physical grit, grind and toughness. We’ve only increased that immensely. Both are high-level rebounders on both ends and they embrace physicality. They can continue the way we’re playing.”
SLU lost D.J. Foreman to graduation, and two players Ford was banking on for 2019-20 departed. Carte’Are Gordon opted to transfer to DePaul at midseason. Luis Santos was suspended and withdrew from school before the season began.
Ford and his staff pursued the graduate transfer pool but that didn’t produce this time after SLU snagged a pair of grad transfer guards last offseason.
Ford’s goal is to move French, who is listed at 6-7 and 236, from the role of having to defend against opposing centers and move out of the “five” spot on offense. How quickly the two new players develop will determine a lot.
“It’s going to give him the opportunity to do that,” Ford said. “That’s a big thing for us. We want to get ‘Has’ away from guarding the five all the time. We want him to get away from posting up all the time. He’s so good with space and putting the ball on the floor. He can guard anybody but gets in a little more foul trouble when he’s 6-7 trying to guard a 6-9 or 6-10. With these guys, we don’t have an issue with that.”
French averaged 9.3 points and 8.4 rebounds last season as a sophomore and bumped those numbers to 10.9 and 8.9 in Atlantic 10 Conference play. He was named to the A-10 third team and the all-defensive team as he climbed to No. 3 on the school’s career blocked shot list, with 125 in just two seasons.
Bell will arrive from Bella Vista Prep in Arizona and Diarra, who is from Mali, attended St. Benedict’s Prep in New Jersey. Ford didn’t mention any specific players he pursued via transfer, but said “a few” ended up going to power conference programs.
The newcomers will arrive in early June to participate in summer camps and begin workouts with the team. Both will need to drop some weight, Ford said. Bell already has lost 80 pounds and previously received interest from college football programs as an offensive lineman.
Bell signed before Diarra was in the picture. He visited during the season and signed during the spring period. It was known that SLU still was pursuing another big man.
“Jimmy’s not afraid of competition,” Ford said. “He was excited as anybody about getting Madani. He was the first one to tweet it out, so that’s pretty cool.”
SLU has one scholarship remaining for next season but will not necessarily put it to use. Ford said that only a “difference maker” would be reason to sign another player and that the staff is not actively in search.
Guard Mike Lewis II, the other major offseason addition, is on campus and attending class. Ford is waiting on a decision from the NCAA whether the transfer player will be allowed to play the entire season, or not until the first semester ends.
Although Lewis last played at Duquesne, he does not count as an intra-conference transfer because he spent a semester at Nevada.
“I think there are a lot of circumstances in his background that people have received waivers for,” Ford said. “But I don’t like to speak on that one way or the other.”