This article was originally published at the Unewsonline.com on March 22nd 2019
A Conference Championship is a feat that any program has a right to be proud of. For most, they are extremely rare and even one can be world-changing for the future of a program. That being said, to do it in the fashion that the Saint Louis University Billikens did it to win the 2019 A10 championship is even more memorable. The Bills are tied with only the Oregon Ducks for being the highest seeded teams to earn automatic bids in the NCAA championship. Both did it as six seeds. The Bills won four games in four days, which, if you think you may be hearing about that a lot, that’s because of the unlikelihood and irregularity that actually happens.
Despite that feat where the extremely thin Billikens, who often ran only six-man rotations, proved their physical ability to play consistent basketball with minimal rest, and yet the popular narrative is that this Billikens team is simply too tired to put up a fight. ESPN’s head bracketologist Joe Lunardi said “this team is out of gas,” and that has sparked the tag line for the rest of the country to say this team is “finished.”
The Billikens don’t feel that way. “This team is really well-conditioned,” said Javon Bess. Coach Travis Ford indicated he’s not worried about the rest situation. From a health perspective, this team may be the most well-rested they’ve been all year. In fact, if you were to believe Billiken Director of Sports Performance Robb Hornett, this team is better off for having played the four-game championship.
“We practice these guys really hard, they probably got more rest playing the four games than if they had played two and practised two,” Hornett said during the open practice session Thursday night. “We make these guys have worked all year to be ready to play high-intensity minutes.”
Hornett comes to the Billikens with experience and accolades that very few have. He spent last season with the Golden State Warriors before he was recruited by SLU—making him an NBA Champion and yes, he does have a ring. Before that he worked at the University of Virginia, Hornett is as experienced in developing basketball players as they come.
He accredits much of the success of this team to its physical preparedness and commitment to the process. “All these guys are as healthy as they are and able to win games because they really buy-in,” Hornett said. “I can only give you the path you have to drive it.” Though he does acknowledge that a big reason the Billikens was able to go on the championship run was the team’s advanced age. He explained that being one of the older teams in the conference—playing with four seniors—the Billikens were able to rely on their “bigger engines” “It’s like a car right, we’ve had time to build really strong, fuel-efficient engines for ourselves whereas other,” he said. ”Younger programs don’t have that.”
What makes the Billikens sports science department unique is its attention to individual details and creating personal work plans for each player. When each player comes in, Hornett explained that they go through a series of tests to completely understand a player’s body. “We want to know how to best work with you, like, if you have a bad hip socket we know to not make you do ass to grass squats,” he said. “We want to create a program that works.”
In a year in which the Billikens have faced so many injury concerns, Hornett accredits Ford’s commitment to the program as a big reason for success. “It’s all collaborative if guys gotta (sic) sit out and take a rest day for an injury the coaching staff has no problem,” he said.
The Billikens will need all that physicality when they take on Virginia Tech in the first round, and other teams know it is coming. Virginia Tech Head Coach Buzz Williams said he expects a “Travis Ford” style team tomorrow. “Can’t be on the court unless you bench 300 pounds,” he said. “Can’t be on the floor unless you’re really mean and really tough.”
Regardless of how the Billikens play tomorrow, it’s safe to say “gas in the tank” will not be a problem the Bills will be facing.