KSDK - Expectations are sky-high as the Saint Louis University Billikens prepare to kick off the 2013-14 men's basketball season against Southeast Missouri State Friday night at Chaifetz Arena. Head coach Jim Crews has a veteran squad with back-to-back appearances in the NCAA tournament on their resume. Unlike last year, his first as head coach for SLU, Crews has a good feel for a group he's come to know well---there shouldn't be many surprises. But one big piece of the Billikens' considerable home court advantage remains an unknown:
Fan attendance for early home games.
It may seem like a distant memory now, but SLU didn't exactly pack them in for the first few home games last year.
By season's end, the true blue passion for the Billikens in their home gym stacked up with any atmosphere in any arena in America.
But at the beginning of last year's schedule-- how do we put this politely?
The decibel level at Chaifetz Arena matched what you might find at your next mandatory awkward staff meeting in the third floor conference room.
"I'm hoping that the fans come out in force early on this year," said longtime fan, and SLU grad John Dryden. "This is a good team."
There were unknowns in the fall of 2012 with Crews taking over the program and a shaky 3-3 start certainly didn't ignite the fan base.
It's an uncomfortable truth, but one of the most celebrated seasons ever for the Billikens (13th ranked, 28 wins) began with a big dose of indifference from many local fans.
Early TV broadcasts of the games often showed oceans of empty blue seats at Chaifetz Arena. This year, that shouldn't be the case.
"Chaifetz Arena is just a great venue for college basketball," said Crews. "It is a great atmosphere. The students get into it, and there is not a better pep band in America than ours."
There's the band, the Billiken mascot posing for pictures with little ones and, unlike most college basketball venues, fans of a certain age can enjoy a frosty beverage.
The Billikens are putting a known product on the hardwood Friday night. Even the biggest skeptic would have to admit the SLU hoops program is on a positive trajectory.
"In recent years I have seen the tickets go from being available five minutes before the game start, to the tickets being sold out," said student Sean Falconer, one of the SLU Blue Men, a group of fans who wear the full-bodied blue "Morph" suits at each home game.
Last season, Chaifetz Arena had almost or more than 10,000 fans for every home game starting with the impressive 75-58 home win over Butler on January 31.
But just over 5,000 Billiken faithful (official paid attendance) came out for a discouraging early loss to Santa Clara on November 14.
"After talking with some of the players I know they appreciate the love from us fans," Falconer said.
Ultimately, it is the players who win and lose the games but a sea of empty seats certainly didn't give the Billikens a nudge in the pre-Thanksgiving schedule in 2012.
Will there be standing room only for the Oral Roberts game a week before Thanksgiving this year? Likely not.
But would it be nice to have a raucous arena when the Wichita State Shockers, a Final Four team from last year's NCAA tournament, come to town? Absolutely.
"The entire St. Louis community and our fans really fueled the atmosphere last year at Chaifetz Arena and helped us to a championship, and we hope for the same this year," Crews added.
A die-hard SLU fan since the 1970's, John Dryden has seen the Billikens rise and fall over the years. From home games at the old Kiel Auditorium, the St. Louis Arena, and now, finally, in a gleaming on-campus facility.
"If SLU can have another winning season with big crowds, there is a good chance they could move into the revamped Big East down the road and get regular match-ups with teams like Marquette and Georgetown," Dryden said.
"The games have gone from just something to do, into campus wide events," said Falconer, as he prepared his blue man "Morph" suit for Friday night.
Tip off is 7:30 pm.
The SLU Blue Men will be there.