This may be a bad thing for a college basketball writer to admit, but I don't spend a lot of time thinking about the A10. Perhaps I should since the A10 is fairly competitive with the newly formulated Big East, even if the Big East poached Xavier and Butler. [It goes without saying that I don't care for college basketball conferences that use numbers without meaning - somehow the A10 has 13 teams.] With Saint Louis going undefeated through the first five weeks of conference play, I figured I'd better take a look to see if the Billikens were worth serious consideration. I liked that they went to Philadelphia and beat St. Joseph's, so a return trip to the city of brotherly love may produce some interesting results. La Salle has had some problems of late (losing four of their previous five games coming in), but the Explorers were a Sweet 16 team just a year ago and had only lost twice on their home court.
The first thing I noticed after the game switched on (upon seeing the conclusion of the Maryland-Florida State game) was how tenaciously the Billikens defend. They generally stay in man-to-man defense, but they were not waiting for the Explorers to set up a play before attacking. Guards Jordair Jett and Mike McCall Jr. did not give the La Salle backcourt much room to breathe, and the Saint Louis forwards helped in setting up traps anywhere on the court. My guess is that this defense is the Billikens' calling card and makes for some nightmares for opposing coaches. At times, Saint Louis was overly aggressive on defense, which led to some breakdowns and easy baskets for Jerrell Wright, who finished with 21 points.
At first, I thought the SLU offense was going to be equally aggressive to make for an interesting team. They were happy to run when La Salle committed turnover. When the game slowed down, the Billiken offense became much more patient. They were willing to pass the ball around and probe the defense, Kansas-style. While Dwayne Evans is the team's leading scorer, he had a rather quiet game of 14 points. It was Jett who relentlessly attacked the basket and finished with a game-high 25 points. The 6-1, 215 guard has scored in double digits in his last nine games - a streak that started with 31 points in the one-point win over Rhode Island on Jan. 7. Fellow senior McCall added eight points, but missed all five of his 3-point attempts.
In fact, it was the Billikens inability to knock down 3-pointers (just 2-of-13) that was one of the reasons that the game was close. Fortunately, La Salle was just 2-of-8 from long range. The biggest reason (literally and figuratively) that Saint Louis wasn't able to pull away was Explorer center Steve Zack. The 6-11 junior was able to take advantage of his size with 15 points and 13 boards. Saint Louis does have Rob Loe, a 6-11 New Zealander, but he is mainly a perimeter player. Zach and Wright combined for 21 points and 36 points. Since Evans and fellow starter Jake Barnett are just 6-5, opponents' size will likely be an issue for Saint Louis before the season is up.
Now that Saint Louis has won 16 straight games, the question becomes how far can they go? It seems unlikely that they will escape A10 conference play undefeated. They still have to play VCU twice, host George Washington, and finish the season at Massachusetts. Joe Lunardi has them slated for a six-seed, which seems a bit low to me. Last year, Saint Louis made it to the Round of 32 for the second straight tournament. I think their style will cause problems for opponents who are not used to be attacked throughout halfcourt sets. However, if they run into an opponent with quality size, the Billikens may be in trouble.