Key game bumped up to ESPN, Bobby Knight, VCU's "havoc" D coming to Chaifetz
1. Hello World! With one of the nation's longest winning streaks at 16 games, and a combined record of 44-4 at home over the last three years, the "best team in the country that no one is talking about" will get a lot of attention on the national stage Saturday. The SLU Billikens home game will be seen by a curious nation on ESPN at 1 pm on Saturday. Not ESPN2, ESPN3, ESPNU, ESPN360, ESPNforStayAtHomeDads. The Mother Ship, as Dan Patrick calls it. The main stage. SLU has been on the national radar over the last three years, but sports fans on both coasts don't really think about SLU until the NCAA brackets start circulating in the workplace. In previous years, SLU has been like the quirky kid in high school who gets invited to the cool party once a year (NCAA tournament). This isn't that. This is an extra invite from the in-crowd. Do the Billikens really belong with college basketball's beautiful people? ESPN bumping this game up to the main stage in mid-February is a way of saying, "OK, fine. Show us what the fuss is about". The rap on SLU, despite its gaudy record, has been, "they win ugly, the games are grinding, there's not enough dunks". Saturday's showing will be the Billikens chance to show America, once again, that defense can be sexy. Wasn't this the moral from the Super Bowl? Defense wins championships?
This is a star turn for the Saint Louis University basketball program, the team, its arena, and its fans. The VCU game has been sold out for a while now. SLU officials say the 1,000 tickets allotted for SLU students were snatched up on Wednesday morning in 90 minutes, believed to be a record time. Before the magic of Spoonball put 17,000 fans in the St. Louis Arena in 1993-94, when I was at SLU at that time, the marketing department basically had to beg students on campus to board school busses parked behind Griesedieck Hall just to go to the homes at the Checkerdome. Chaifetz will be rocking on Saturday. The Billiken on ESPN's big stage. Look for the righteous SLU Blue Men .
2. Who's the man? Over SLU's last ten games, four different players have been the leading scorer (Jett, Loe, Evans, McCall). Jordair Jett channeled Michael Jordan at LaSalle last week and at URI earlier this year. Against George Mason, it was Rob Loe and three clutch 3-pointers that kept SLU's streak alive. In one of the gutsiest road wins in recent history, it was the incomparable Dwayne Evans leading the way with 22 points. So who will take the final shot against VCU on Saturday if it comes to that? Here's the best part: it doesn't matter. Head Coach Jim Crews insists there's no ego battles with this group. And if you've been watching the Billikens at all this year, you'd have to think he's telling the truth. This is a mature group of men who know what it takes to win. Former coach Rick Majerus was famous for his "starting is for high school" mentality. These talented Billikens are still living by the old coach's wisdom. They don't get too up or too down, they take care of business. The past week has been almost like Super Bowl hype week on campus. ESPN and Fox Sports have both been in town to shoot highly produced feature stories for this weekend. The players have not been phased. This is the new normal.
3. Bobby Knight It's not just that legendary coach Bobby Knight will be working the SLU-VCU game on ESPN at 1 pm. Consider this: as everyone knows, SLU coach Jim Crews played for Bobby Knight on the undefeated 1975-76 Indiana title team. They are still close. This is the first time Knight will work the broadcast booth for a game his former player is coaching. Is that good for SLU? Bad? Who knows? There's more: the Billikens' newest coach, Calbert Cheaney, was the national player of the year when he played for Bobby Knight at Indiana in the early 90s. This might have you thinking SLU benefits from this somehow. It's hard to foresee this veteran group of Billikens laying an egg at home in a big game, on the WorldWide Leader, with the iconic former coach for TWO of their coaches calling the game. But we'll see.
4. VCU's "Havoc" defense The VCU Rams know defense. There's no way around this. The Rams full court pressure has a branded nickname: "havoc". VCU is leading the country in steals, as they have the last three years. Head Coach Shaka Smart's 40 minute blitzkrieg is relentless. The "havoc" is physically draining on opponents but it also has a big psychological element. The pressure leads to fast turnover points and W's for VCU against young, inexperienced squads. And the "havoc" has a momentum to it. Teams coughing the ball up start thinking too much about NOT turning the ball over, and it gets worse. We've all seen it. But here's the good news: The SLU Billikens are not young. They are not inexperienced. They do not scare easy. Guards Jordair Jett and Mike McCall can take the heat. If the Billikens can sting the Rams on the back end with easy buckets after penetrating the "havoc", VCU may have to rethink that strategy. It's like a football team relying on blitzing the quarterback only to have a smart, veteran QB kill them with quick screens, dinking and dunking the offense quickly down field.
5. VCU's Melvin Johnson The Rams have many talented players but here's one guy to keep an eye out for: Melvin Johnson. Look for him, he's #32. In this week's win over George Washington, Johnson was 5-for-8 from 3-point land, finishing with 21 points. According to the St. Louis Post Dispatch's superb Billiken beat reporter, Tom Timmermann, VCU outscored George Washington by 47 points with Melvin Johnson on the court. If Johnson keeps his hot hand from downtown at Chaifetz Arena on Saturday, the Billikens could have a tough time keeping up with the Rams. There's YouTube video with Johnson's highlights from last year, as a freshman.
Also bear in mind, SLU did beat VCU (a Final Four team in 2011) twice last year. Including once in the A-10 tournament, when there was allegedly some amusing trash talking between VCU fan Spike Lee and Billiken fans of note.
Is Spike coming to St. Louis?
"If he's coming, we haven't heard about it," said a SLU official.
SLU-VCU. One pm tip Saturday on ESPN.
Do the right thing.
You can hear more from Pat McGonigle, TISL News Anchor, Saturday night at 5:00, 6:00, and 10:00 p.m.