By Keith Kuetemann
-- St. Louis University's men's basketball teamkick off their 2012-2013 season on Friday night with the hopes of back-to-back impressive seasons. The 2011-2012 SLU season was one of the most successful in school history and with many of the core players returning, expectations for the Billikens' 2012-2013 season are understandably lofty.
After turning in an overall record of 26-8 last year, many experts have the Billikens finishing near the top of the Atlantic-10 Conference. SLU finished in 2nd place in the A-10 last year after going 12-4 in conference games. The season climaxed with the Bills' earning the 7th NCAA Tournament berth in school history.
While many of the players that made last season so special will be returning this year, the Billikens will be without a few key pieces.
Coach Rick Majerus is taking an extended leave of absence from his head coaching job while he deals with health issues. Majerus implemented a defensive and teamwork-based mindset en route to a 95-69 combined record over 5 seasons in St. Louis. Filling in for Majerus is a man who has had success both on the court and on the sidelines.
Jim Crews will take over as interim head coach in Majerus's absence. Crews played college basketball under legendary head coach Bobby Knight at Indiana. The Hoosiers won a National Championship in Crew's senior year at the culmination of a season where the Hoosiers went 32-0; a feat that has not been repeated since.
A year after Crews graduated, he returned to Indiana to become a coaching assistant under Knight. He took a head coaching position with the Evansville Purple Aces in 1985. After 17 seasons and a winning percentage of .601 with Evansville, Crews accepted another head coaching job, this time at Army of the Patriot League.
Although he did not enjoy the same success with Army as he had with Evansville, he made enough of an impression on Majerus for him to offer Crews the assistant coaching job at SLU prior to last season. When it was discovered that Majerus would not be able to coach the team, Crews provided an easy solution at head coach.
While Crews knows that his role is to be the figurehead of this team, he also knows that it will take a complete team effort to put together another tournament run. He will rely on some of the upper-classmen that make up this roster to solidify the character that Majerus and Crews have brought to this team. "We lead by committee, one guy does not," said Crews. "When guys accomplish things, they become teachers of the game. The philosophy they pass on becomes what this franchise is and stands for."
When team captain Kwamain Mitchell went down in a preseason practice with a broken foot, the Bills needed someone to step up and replace their leader. In the early going, Mike McCall Jr. appears to be that guy.
McCall Jr. helped fill the void that Mitchell left after he was suspended for the entirety of the 2010-2011 season. He finished that season with over 10 points and 3 assists per game. The fact that McCall and Mitchell are roommates should ease McCall's transition into the leadership role as well. McCall Jr. finished last season with an average of 7 points and 2.2 assists per game and led the team to a 79-47 whipping of Rockhurst by scoring a team-high 14 points. While McCall will be asked to carry a heavier load this season, he will not shoulder the weight on his own.
Big men like Cody Ellis (10.1 points per game last season) and Rob Loe (6'11") will need to get to the rim and the free throw line with great regularity to put points on the board. Promising guard Jordain Jett and team big man John Manning (6'11") will need to continue their strong defensive play from a year ago to preserve the team's stonewall mentality put in place by Majerus and Crews.
If Crews and his players can build on the very solid foundation built by Majerus, the team that starts their season on Friday night in St. Louis could be finishing it next March in the NCAA tournament.