Tonight's the last time a hometown St. Louis crowd will cheer on the most successful graduating class of basketball seniors in Saint Louis University history. The Billikens five seniors, who will graduate with more wins, more NCAA Tournament appearances, and just more of everything will play before a sold out crowd just one more time in the 314 area code (SLU playing at Scottrade in the NCAA tourney is a longshot).
"It's been a crazy four years," senior Dwayne Evans said. "It doesn't seem like it's been that long but I guess it has been a while now. I'm an old man around here. So hopefully we can go out with a bang with a big win."
It's been a while now since Evans and fellow senior Mike McCall decided to leave the Chicago area and be a part of something special Rick Majerus was building at SLU.
Majerus' top recruiter at the time, Porter Moser (currently head coach at Loyola Chicago), never missed one of Evans or McCall's AAU games during the recruiting process.
But make no mistake, these are SLU Head Coach Jim Crews' guys.
"Well, you're right, I am going to give all the credit to Jim Crews," Moser told KSDK's Frank Cusumano this week. "Jim's done an amazing job. If the wheels fell off that thing, everyone would blame Jim. The fact that they didn't and have actually gotten better---Jim should get all the credit."
The topic came up again at a Tuesday press conference at Chaifetz Arena.
"They are my guys," Crews made very clear. "I don't care if we went 0-20 and I didn't recruit one of them, they are my guys."
Senior Dwayne Evans is the embodiment of everything in a student-athlete that lured Crews back to coaching.
Since deciding to take his talents to Midtown, Evans has been using his old-school assortment of post-up moves and deceiving size and strength to confound SLU's opponents. Evans is a master of low-block maneuvers that come right out of a basketball textbook from 1977. Throughout his career he's consistently knocked down the mid-range, 10 to 16 foot jumper. Exceedingly rare skills in a college game that seems addicted to either high-flying dunks or 3-point specialists. Evans has made a career out of that lucrative territory in between. For evidence: SLU's opening round victory over New Mexico State in last year's NCAA tournament. Evans had 24 points on 11 for 16 shooting in that 20 point win last March. Most of them came on short jumpers between the free throw line and the top of the key. Evans' old-school approach was unstoppable on the big stage and the Billikens cruised to the round of 32.
A lot's been rightly made of Dwayne Evans' high grade point average and community involvement. Evans is a finalist for the NCAA CLASS Award for distinction in four areas of excellence - community, classroom, character and competition. Evans is a business administration major who volunteered with the Special Needs Soccer Association and Athletes in Action. Evans traveled to Africa last summer on a goodwill trip organized by Athletes in Action.
Some have wondered if the undersized "4" may have played his way into some NBA training camps or rookie leagues after he graduates.
Head Coach Jim Crews is convinced Evans will play pro basketball somewhere next year.
Whatever the future holds for #21, Billiken fans will certainly know Saint Louis University is a better place for having him.
When Jordair Jett's name first appeared on SLU's roster, it definitely caught your eye.
"Wait, is that first name a reference to what I think it is?" most asked. Yes, it is. And if living up to one of the most exalted names in basketball seems like an impossible challenge, by now we can agree that Jett lived up to his namesake.
In his four years, Jett has often been the most intense athlete on the floor. The one player you didn't want to defend or have guarding you. Much has been written about Jett's similarities to a football player terrorizing opponents on a basketball court. Frank Cusumano once called him "Steven Jackson in shorts". Jett's always had a hand in big SLU victories in his first three seasons. Either through lockdown defense, assists, and/or leadership.
In his final year on campus, Jett displayed a stunning assortment of "get to the rim" maneuvers as thrilling as any dunk. This season, Jett's been the A-10 Player of the Week four times and is one of the favorites for A-10 Player of the Year. With 31 points at Rhode Island and 25 at LaSalle, Jett was a virtuoso in the closing minutes. In both league games on the road, the Milwaukee native was absolutely Jordanesque. Jett brought the ball up the floor. Once across half court, everyone in the gym, and watching at home, knew Jett would call his own number and make a mad dash into the paint and at the rim. Good luck stopping him.
The football comparisons have only increased in Jett's final year. LaSalle head coach Dr. John Giannini seemed somewhat serious when he recently suggested Jett should at least consider pro football.
"Yeah, I've thought about it," Jett told Stlmag.com.
If seniors Jett, Evans, and Mike McCall Jr. represent the last of Rick Majerus' recruits from nearby cities flying just under the radar of Top 25 programs, Rob Loe is the last of another unusual strain on the Billiken family tree. The New Zealand native is another four year starter who came to Midtown from well beyond the boundaries of the usual midwest college recruiter. If it seems like there's been a "down under" theme to SLU hoops of late, it's no accident. Former SLU coach Chris Harriman had extensive contacts in Australian basketball. Australian players Cody Ellis and Christian Salecich came to SLU thanks to Harriman. Rob Loe may be the prize of the down under batch of Billikens.
A four year starter with uncommon outside shooting touch for an athlete just under seven feet, Loe's loss will be huge next year. The senior made strides with his post up game in his final season but Loe's 3-point touch bailed the Billikens out of tight spots repeatedly during this year's magical run. Without Loe's three 3-pointers in the closing minutes at home, SLU loses to George Mason last month. Loe's varied skills repeatedly kept opponents, and celebrity announcers, guessing. When Loe released a game clinching 3-pointer at home against VCU, ESPN's Bobby Knight bellowed, "NO!" After the ball swished through the net, Knight added something to the effect of "well, I still didn't like that shot". But SLU fans do like that shot. They have for four years now, and they will miss it.
In his conversation with Frank Cusumano this week, former SLU assistant coach and uber-recruiter Porter Moser recalled a grueling three hour practice during the Rick Majerus regime. The entire session was based around teaching Mike McCall Jr. the proper techniques and mechanics to get around a high ball screen as a defender. Majerus was obsessive about tiny details. McCall Jr. didn't get it right away. It took hours. But eventually he got it. Moser recalls watching McCall Jr. and SLU dominate Butler multiple times last season. One of the most telling sequences? McCall Jr. repeatedly getting around Butler's high ball screen and taking away the Bulldogs offensive options. It's the kind of moment a college hoops coach lives for. And it's the type of work ethic McCall Jr. has shown from day one. Another four year starter from SLU's greatest class, McCall Jr. led the Billikens in scoring his freshmen season. The last SLU player to do that? Larry Hughes.
When asked by Frank Cusumano to describe McCall Jr. in a word or two, Crews said, "Quiet competitor".
McCall Jr. is a communication major known for letting his game do his talking. SLU would do well to a find a few more like him.
Why did he come to St. Louis?
"The guys. The coaches. They were just down to earth, made me feel at home. The campus. It was cool. They just made me feel at home," McCall Jr. said.
Jake Barnett came to SLU as a transfer with impressive credentials after a freshman year at Toledo. Barnett quickly flashed an outside shooting touch that demanded the respect of defenses. This year, he's continued to keep zone defenses honest with his range but he's also stepped up his defensive prowess and overall leadership skills.
Barnett's embraced St. Louis in some creative ways. The senior proposed to his fiance, a player on SLU's women's team, at the top of the Gateway Arch. And you could argue Barnett's most lasting and beautiful contribution to the basketball program at Saint Louis University came off the court. In the fall of 2012, the Billikens adopted 9-year old Josh Brown as an unofficial member of the team. Josh was battling brain cancer, but never missed a home game. The entire squad took Josh in, but he developed a special bond with Barnett. Sadly, Josh Brown passed away last spring. Jake Barnett spoke at his funeral. Barnett also narrated a video on a website designed to keep Joshua's memory alive. Try watching it without tearing up. You won't find Jake Barnett's name at the top of any career statistical categories in the SLU media guide. But you'd be hard pressed to find any player the school is more proud of. Jake Barnett is a living, breathing example of everything SLU hopes its students will someday become.
So here we are, Senior Night for the best graduating class of hoopsters SLU has ever known. That's saying something for a school that opened its doors in 1818.
"This is the last page of this book. In terms of the seniors," Crews said this week. "So you reflect and have an appreciation and gratitude for who they are and what they've done. It's an emotional time."
"I just remember the different personalities," Jake Barnett recalls. "Every guy on this team is completely different, especially the five seniors. All of these guys are unique, none of us are the same but we all get along really well."
"Who's going to cry the most on senior night?" laughs Dwayne Evans, on hearing the question. "Honestly, I don't know. I'll probably be up there. Maybe Jake Barnett but I'm not really sure."
"I came here three years ago, off the streets," Coach Crews reflected. "From a totally different generation, different background and watched as the players accepted me when Rick brought me here. Something I'll never forget."
It's been a four year stretch a lot of us won't forget.