ST. LOUIS (AP) — Last season was such a downer for Saint Louis, there’ll be few tears shed if the school’s first appearance in the Top 25 since 1994 lasts a single week.
The Billikens figure to be back.
A year late, coach Rick Majerus’ program is finally taking flight.
“We took our beatings last year, and to see the guys push through that is satisfying,” senior guard Kyle Cassity said. “This is it, seeing it all come together. I don’t know how long we’ll stay there, but to crack the Top 25 and get a little exposure is great.”
All five starters are back on a team picked to finish third in the Atlantic-10. Saint Louis has already beaten Oklahoma, Villanova, Boston College and Washington, not your typical early-season fodder, in a scintillating 6-0 start. The lone loss came on dead legs at Loyola Marymount on Tuesday, the fourth game in six days.
Disneyland might be blamed, too. Players spent five or six hours at the amusement park the day before the loss.
“That could have had an effect on us,” Majerus said. “But I’d rather have lost that game and gone to Disneyland than won that game and not gone to Disneyland. They’re kids, they had a great time, they might not ever get there again.”
The next seven games are at home, most with the potential for record-building after what could be a tough matchup Saturday night against Portland. The Top 25 is of no concern to the 63-year-old Majerus, who has produced 11 NCAA tournament teams and until last year coached 23 seasons without a losing record.
“Rankings mean nothing to me, my teams have almost always been ranked,” Majerus said. “We’re only one-fourth of the way into the season. I do think we’re heading in a better direction.”
With players he can brag about, too.
Cassity and forward Brian Conklin, the lone seniors, have already graduated and are working on MBAs. Dwayne Evans is an honor roll student and several others aren’t far off.
Conklin has been a surprise star early, averaging 16.4 points, and was named MVP of the 76 Classic.
“His dad’s a truck driver and that’s how he plays, and that’s how he fights,” Majerus said. “They’re all great kids, and they’re all going to get their degree.”
Point guard Kwamain Mitchell, one of two players suspended by a student judiciary board for violating the school’s code of contact last October, has come back strong, averaging 12.6 points and four assists. Sharpshooting forward Cody Ellis, one of four international recruits, is averaging 12 points off the bench.
Even a cameo appearance is the rankings is a big deal for the school, which last made the Top 25 under turtleneck-clad Charlie Spoonhour, who presided over a regular 3-point barrage from Erwin Claggett, Scott Highmark and H Waldman, and produced NCAA tournament berths in 1994 and `95. Saint Louis topped out at No. 16 in 1994.
The school last made it to the NCAA tournament in 2000. Either way, it’s been a long time.
Last season was supposed to be the Billiken breakthrough for Majerus, coming off a 23-win season and surprise fourth-place finish in the league.
Instead, it was a pothole-filled ordeal.
The roster was decimated after the loss of its two biggest stars, Mitchell and 6-9 center Willie Reed. Few details were released, though Reed’s education record was reviewed. He later withdrew from school.
“It was a rough situation,” Cassity said, “but we made do.”
Majerus gashed his left leg on the scorer’s table after colliding with two players in early January, and missed six games.
“And we don’t win a game. I missed 24 practices at a critical time,” Majerus said. “I’m not knocking my staff one bit, they did a great job. I’ll tell you what was really hard, laying in a room with your leg up and the game’s only on the radio, and listening to your team lose. Sitting there because of some freak accident.”
Reed is now playing professionally in Spain. Mitchell was readmitted for the second semester, took a redshirt year and is back as a major producer.
“Kwamain has a different perspective on life,” Majerus said. “He’s really a good kid. Everyone likes him.”
The Billikens have surfaced with a splash from the turmoil of that 12-19 season. Majerus is excited not just about this team, with young talent on hand, but what he says are commitments from touted recruits.
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“Now, everything is starting to pay off a little bit,” Cassity said. “All the pieces are there.”