This article was originally published in the University News and at Unewsonline.com on February 28th 2019
The Billikens faced an uphill battle going into the past weeks stretch of games, on the outside looking in on the double-bye that is granted to the top four teams in the Atlantic 10. A bye that all but two teams have needed to win the conference tournament since its introduction. They did have an opportunity to make some noise and change their fate, going on the road to face two teams above them in the standings. First going to Dayton to finish the second half of a home-and-home series with the Flyers, then turning around to face Virginia Commonwealth just three nights later. The Billikens felt both games were winnable and had the potential to change their postseason trajectory.
Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case for the Bills, and they returned home with a disappointing 0-2 for the road trip dropping their conference record to a humble 8-7. An outcome that all but cemented the Billikens fate of landing outside the top four in the conference. However, what neither loss indicated was SLU’s inability to make a potential tournament run. Coach Fords Billikens looked like they belonged in both games and could have won ether with a friendly roll or call. What this team looks like isn’t ‘incapable’, it looks hampered.
Each member of this Billiken squad is nursing some kind of an injury or another, and when a few players get healthy someone else gets hurt. Just as KC Hankton and Demarius Jacobs appeared to be healthy, Dion Wiley came into practice with ice bags on his knees. Practices have often been run by skeleton crews of players and have included alumni, including Anthony Bonner and Aaron Hines, just to maintain a semblance of regularity. The losses to VCU and Dayton featured a team that primarily six players with Dion Wiley missing the entirety of the Dayton game, and only getting eight minutes at VCU.
Despite these problems, the Billikens had opportunities to win the game in ether matchup. SLU led the Dayton Flyers for the majority of the first half, and never let the lead exceed ten on route to an eventual 70-62 loss. When they went to Virginia the Billikens trailed by as few as three in the final minute of the game overcoming a fifteen-point deficit earlier in the second half. The Bills consistently show the grit necessary to go on a potential run in Brooklyn.
However, the tournament format will provide a challenge. The Billikens are all but assured to finish the year in the six through 10 seeds, a placement that will require winning four games in four nights to take home a championship. If health continues to be a problem for the Bills, playing games without rest will provide a challenge. That being said, even if they did reach the double-bye threshold, they would still have to win three games in three nights. So, the challenge, in this case, is only a variant on the expected.
Despite these challenges, the locker room still feels they are a force to be reckoned with. After the loss to the Virginia Commonwealth Rams, sophomore forward Hasahn French made that much clear “We know we can play with anybody,” French said. “This is the top team in the conference, and we know we can win these games. We know we can do certain things. Going into our next games, we know that we can play with anybody and if we come to play, we can get it done.”
The Billikens now return home for two games before finishing the season in New York at St. Bonaventure. They continue their run of facing teams above them in the standing, bringing in George Mason and Duquesne. They will now have to shift their sights in terms of seeding, with the schedule still affording them the opportunity to move up and potentially significantly lighten their load come tournament time.