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SLU was never the same after long COVID pause

SLU was never the same after long COVID pause

Rhode Island Saint Louis Basketball

Saint Louis' Hasahn French (11) is congratulated by teammate Jordan Goodwin (0) after making a layup . (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

Postseason meetings with players began sooner than hoped for Travis Ford, although he might have been more accepting of the task if they had followed a loss in the NCAA Tournament rather than the National Invitation Tournament.

Billikens cycled in and out of the St. Louis University coach’s office early this week as the time for rumination began regarding a season that didn’t live up to the hype.

Ford believes that he, his players and coaching staff will take life lessons from an unprecedented season. But if there’s one thing he hasn’t quite figured out it is how he could have changed the course of events.

“I’m trying to evaluate everything and still think it will take a little bit of time,” he said. “I’ve thought about it a thousand times. I don’t know what I’d do differently or could have done differently.”

SLU finished 14-7 after posting a 7-1 nonconference record, which earned the Billikens a national ranking for four weeks while they were on their COVID-19 pause. It was the first time in Ford’s tenure that he didn’t improve on the previous season’s winning percentage.

That didn’t seem likely after Christmas, but after enduring 11 cases of coronavirus among players, things weren’t ever quite the same.

SLU scored far fewer points, dropping from an average of 82.4 in the first nine games to 69.4 in the last 12. A once disruptive defense did not force nearly as many turnovers in the second half of the season. SLU’s shooting percentages waned as opponents saw theirs rise. And the Billikens struggled to finish close games, which mostly ended in losses.

“It’s hard to pinpoint because if you look at the stats, I don’t know if we were as good at anything after the pause as we were before on a consistent basis,” Ford said. “I knew we weren’t playing as well on either end, but I think the impact on individuals conditioning-wise, mental-wise is what took a toll.”

Travis Ford's team went one-and-done in the NIT after missing the NCAA Tournament cut. In this episode of Billikens Beat, SLU beat writer Stu Durando and sports columnist Ben Frederickson discuss how to analyze a COVID-challenged season, and then turn the page to what comes next for SLU. Jordan Goodwin and Hasahn French are likely gone, but some key players return, and Ford is on the hunt for transfers.

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The Billikens were able to right the ship with four consecutive wins late in the Atlantic 10 season and earned a double-bye for the conference tournament. But by then, the team’s NCAA Tournament hopes had diminished, and the Billikens ended up among the first four teams that didn’t make the field.

Not only was the team up and down in the final six weeks, but individual players saw their performances fluctuate. That went as much for guys like Gibson Jimerson and Yuri Collins as it did for Jordan Goodwin and Hasahn French.

Ultimately, Ford made a change in the starting lineup and began distributing minutes differently to find a spark — a move that worked briefly.

“Everybody had their moments,” Ford said. “I thought Fred (Thatch) and T.J. (Hargrove) finished strong the last couple of weeks and were playing their best basketball. Yuri was pretty consistent. But no one was as consistent as we wanted or needed, and obviously that was an indication of how we were playing.”

One thing SLU did extremely well from start to finish was rebound. There were some lulls but the Billikens outrebounded their opponents by an average of 8.9 per game, which ranked eighth in the country.

The players most responsible for that strength — Goodwin and French — are not expected to return, despite having one more year of eligibility that can be used. That leaves Ford to fill two roster spots, barring a change of heart by the players.

Of course, there is always the chance that someone could leave in a postseason that will see a record number of transfers across the country. But the initial round of conversations did not produce any such revelations.

“It made us feel good where everyone was at, but we’re not naïve enough to think it can’t happen,” Ford said. “But it was all very positive.”

If everyone does return, or even if the team loses someone, the Billikens have the makings of a solid team, especially with the return of leading scorer Javonte Perkins.

Collins was 10{sup}th{/sup} in the country with an average of 6.1 assists. Perkins and Jimerson combined to make 39% of their 3-pointers. And the Billikens would have five returning players who have scored 20 points in a college game.

Combined with the experience and leadership of Goodwin and French, the consensus was that this was the season SLU would take the next step. Now, it looks as if the Billikens will have to try without them.

“We know the expectations of this past team and understood what it was going in,” Ford said. “We understand how good we were at one time, but what we need to figure out is how we can be ever better.”

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