This article was originally published in the University News and at Unewsonline.com on May 2nd 2019.
The book on the 2019 Billikens has essentially come to a close, all that waits to be written is professional outcomes of a handful of players. Javon Bess and Tramaine Isabell Jr. look to be the most likely to get opportunities in NBA systems over the summer, and if not, are essentially locks to be offered European professional contracts. While unlikely, Bess could hear his name called at the NBA draft in June, however, it is more likely that one or both of the Billikens are given G-League opportunities or signed to free-agent deals.
The other graduating seniors will have the opportunity to test their luck abroad, searching for professional opportunities should they continue to pursue basketball as a career. Both Dion Wiley and DJ Foreman have the skill to play professionally and it would really come down to where they are willing to go.
The odd man out of the five-man senior class is Elliott Welmer, who has been notably plagued with foot injuries in his time at SLU. His health concerns make his future in athletics hard to predict, but it seems clear that being a professional player is not in his future.
It is no secret that the Billikens face an uphill battle in their attempt to repeat their successes of 2019. Most power rankings and projections have the Billikens sitting between seventh and ninth in the conference. Considering they are graduating four of their seven primary players, the fall in the polls makes sense.
Coach Ford and the Billikens are a year behind the A-10 in terms of recruiting and rebuilding. Not to say they have done anything wrong, it’s just that the SLU timeline hasn’t yet matched that of the rest of the conference. The likes of St. Bonaventure, Davidson, Dayton, VCU and Rhode Island all had outstanding 2018/2019 seasons on the backs of freshmen. Now they look to dominate the conference with those players being another year older and more experienced. While some of the more notable freshmen for those programs have entered the NBA draft, it is unlikely they will be taken and thus will be returning to make a run at the A-10 Championship.
When head coach Ford was initially brought into the fold, a major selling point and asset he brought to the table was his recruiting ability. Up to this point there is no reason to doubt that ability. His first recruiting class brought in Jordan Goodwin and Hasahn French. His second class had Fred Thatch Jr. and Carte’Are Gordon. Three four-star recruits in two classes is very impressive. Not to mention the additions of Bess and others from the transfer market.
All that being said, the recruiting class Ford has collected for next year is the deepest and (by virtue of that depth) arguably most talented he has assembled in his time at SLU.
Depth was a necessity for the 2019/2020 season with so many key contributors graduating. The incoming class boasts four freshmen and two transfers, one transfer from another Division I program and the other from the JUCO ranks. The four freshmen include four-star recruit Terrence Hargrove Jr., three-star recruit Jimmy Bell and two-star recruits Yuri Collins and Gibson Jimerson. Mike Lewis II comes to SLU as a transfer by way of the Nevada Wolfpack and Javonte Perkins makes the jump to Division I after spending the last two years at South Western Illinois College.
A central theme of the class is how rooted this particular group is to the St. Louis area. Four of the six incoming players are from the greater St. Louis area, with only Bell (Arizona) and Jimerson (Florida) being the exceptions. This indicates a dramatic shift away from the standard. SLU has historically had a really difficult time defending their hometown pipeline of talent. An absolute shame considering the immense amount of top tier talent coming out of the St. Louis high schools and Missouri as a whole. It’s clear from this class, and the acquisitions from the previous two years (despite the departure of Gordon), that Ford looks to capitalize on St. Louis moving forward.
While the depth of the class is what truly stands out compared to the Ford classes of the past, the keynote individual additions of the class are Hargrove and Lewis .
Lewis’ signing is the most recent commitment for the Billikens and is a sort of homecoming for the 6-foot-1-inch shooting guard. A Chaminade High School graduate who was part of the prolific team that included future NBA lottery pick Jayson Tatum and soon-to-be NBA draft pick Tyler Cook. Lewis has indicated his wish was always to be a Billiken, but he simply could not catch the eye of then SLU head coach Jim Crews. Lewis eventually received a scholarship from A-10 rival Duquesne and developed into a legitimate scorer at the Division I level, leading the Dukes in scoring in his freshman and sophomore seasons before having his minutes restricted in his junior year, sparking a transfer to Nevada. Due to NCAA transfer rules, the junior would be forced to sit out a year before playing for Nevada. However, with head coach Mike Musclemen leaving Nevada in the offseason, his eligibility is now less clear.
Players transferring out of programs where their head coach has left are allowed to transfer and play immediately, however, due to Lewis only spending a semester there it is unclear how that affects his case. He is currently awaiting a ruling from the NCAA as to when exactly he can play for the Bills, at semester or starting the season.
What the Billikens can expect from the guard, whenever he does play, is a scoring touch they were missing last season. Lewis averages 14 points and shoots the three at a 36 percent clip, which could provide some security on the offensive end that may be missing from a younger team.
Hargrove is the highest touted freshman coming into SLU in the 2019/2020 season. A graduate of East St. Louis High School, the 6-foot-6-inch forward is one of the most highly touted high school players in Illinois. A four-star recruit, and the No. 5 recruit in the state, was one of the first to commit to SLU. The incredibly athletic forward wasn’t always as highly regarded as he is now. It was only after leading his East St. Louis Flyers to a 3A State Championship that scouts truly started to take notice of his game. But, by that time, he had already signed his letter of intent to play for SLU, again showing just how skilled a recruiting and talent evaluator Ford can be.
Hargrove is best when he is using his high energy motor and supreme athleticism to create opportunities at both ends of the floor. He has also begun to feature an improved shot from the perimeter, adding another tool to his offensive arsenal. Hargrove has the opportunity to be one of the most impactful SLU players next season despite being a freshman.
The group of St. Louis area natives coming to SLU is rounded out with soon-to-be freshman Collins and JUCO transfer Perkins.
Collins has garnered himself the nickname “Yuri the Magician.” The St. Mary’s High School graduate is widely considered the best true point guard in the St. Louis area. His “magical” passes seem to bend around defenders. He has shown in his young career the ability to be a floor general and a true point guard, with the basketball IQ and skill to back it up. He makes everyone around him better and will add a new dimension to the Billiken offense. While considered a tad undersized at just 5 feet 11 inches , some have called him the most underrated talent in Missouri.
Perkins is making the jump from the junior college ranks, having played the last two years at South Western Illinois College. Perkins brings versatility to the table. While playing at the power forward position at his junior college, he had the ability to guard multiple positions. He was the clear standout of his program, averaging 20 points and 15 rebounds a game for the SWIC Phoenix. He also brings a shooting touch, hitting 42 percent from the 3-point arc, something Billiken big men have lacked in previous seasons.
The freshmen class is rounded out by two out-of-state recruits to make six incoming players in total; Jimerson, a guard out of Florida and Bell, a towering center out of Arizona.
Jimerson is the true definition of a sharpshooter. The 6-foot-6-inch guard has been called “one of the five best shooters in the nation.” The three-star recruit certainly has places in his game where he can improve, but very few are as elite in a particular skill as he is with his jump shot. While playing AAU he shot 3-pointers at a staggering 44 percent on 99 attempts while also showing the ability to hit essentially every mid-range shot.
Bell stands at a towering 6 feet 11 inches and looks to be the true center the Billikens have been missing. He adds to a frontcourt that desperately needs depth, as French is the only remaining impact forward on the roster. The big man weighs in at 270 pounds and, despite this, rumors have indicated he has lost nearly 100 pounds in the last year. What Bell brings to the Billikens is a physical presence on the interior that very few teams in the A-10 can match. He is a true back-to-the-basket post player who uses his size to dominate at the rim. While his athleticism and mobility will be a concern, Bell is an excellent passer with soft hands and good footwork. A clear trend Ford looks for in big men, as French and Foreman were both praised for their passing ability and solid footwork.
The Billikens have an extremely deep class compared to Ford’s years past. While both previous classes have featured extreme impact players, none can boast the sheer number of talented players this class has. What potentially makes this class even more exciting for Billikens fans is that the Bills have one more scholarship to offer.
Ford has indicated a desire to go into the transfer market again and find another big man to add to the fold, citing a desire to have another guy to support French in the paint, but there are no immediately obvious options in the transfer portal. If Ford and the Billikens were able to shock the nation and sign a forward like Kerry Blackshear Jr. (who Bills fans may remember shredding the Billikens in the NCAA Tournament last season for Virginia Tech) or Jayce Johnson (a 7-foot center out of Utah) that may skyrocket them into the upper tier of the A-10 rankings. However, it is more likely that another role player with immediate eligibility takes that final scholarship. Ford cannot be counted out in convincing players to come his way. Isabell is an excellent example of how a single phone call from Ford can be enough to bring an unexpected talent SLU’s way.
An A-10 championship is an excellent start to the legacy of Ford at SLU, but what this recruiting class does for Ford is set up his program for future success in the conference, unlike what he has already done to this point. The recruiting staff at large has laid the groundwork for future success to a greater degree than they possibly could have in the past, and while Ford’s legacy already has a banner and a ring, the 2019/2020 season may be the beginning of a greater legacy at SLU and in college basketball for Ford.