We are now only two weeks away from Billikens Basketball. After a nearly seven-month break from college hoops, the season-opening marquee event, Billiken Madness, is so close you can taste it. Almost all is right in midtown; students are back in class, the foundry project is starting to look like a reality and not just a promise, and the soccer programs have gotten off to promising starts. All that is left is for Chaifetz Arena to be refilled.
It’s a bit of a misnomer to imply that Basketball has been ‘off’, or that an ‘offseason’ exists for the Men’s Basketball program. Returning Billikens never really left and have been working out in Chaifetz Arena in some capacity since the season ended in March. The coaching staff has either been recruiting or on the court coaching with very limited exceptions. The incoming freshmen, five in total, have been in summer classes and practices since June 7th, with transfers coming in soon after. Save for a handful of weekends, and the two weeks between summer and fall semesters, Chaifetz Arena and the Pavilion practice court have been busy.
Not to say all this action hasn’t led to substantial changes in the program. The Bills welcome seven new players to the program for arguably, the most talented, and easily the deepest class in the Travis Ford era. Associate Head Coach Van Macon has departed the program to take a position at St. Johns, Assistant to the Head Coach Chris Tifft also took on a new coaching role elsewhere joining the Central Michigan coaching staff. Coach Macon was seen as a key recruiter, especially in the New York area, where he was a key factor in signing Hasahn French, and Tifft was the mastermind behind the coordination of the out of conference schedule.
While these changes in staff personnel undoubtedly alter the program, those offseason changes are hardly the most dramatic. Ford Stuen was promoted earlier in the summer from Player Development Coordinator to Assistant Coach, and Support Services Coordinator Michael Wilson is expected to be promoted in some capacity to fill the void left behind by Tifft. So, the fabric of the staff remains solid and consistent. The biggest change is the approach taken by the staff for basketball and non-basketball related training for its new young team.
“Two completely different situations with trying to get the train on the tracks”, new assistant coach Ford Stuen told me last week. “Last year guys coming from different places, and guys getting eligible late. Bringing all these pieces together, and then having to live up to everything people said we would be…from a summer standpoint we were just trying to get everyone on the same page…we were trying to get that team organized. Whereas this team, we have to teach a lot, because when you get to college it’s such a learning curve, it’s another level.”
The new Billiken roster boasts five new freshmen and two transfers. Given how few substantial players the Billikens have returning, the 2019-2020 squad will rely heavily on the success of these young men. With such a young squad the coaching staff recognizes the need for a more holistic approach to development. “This summer has been about teaching what are we about as a program. What are our values? What is Team Blue about” Coach Stuen continued, “Last year was a little more team-based, saying ‘ok this is our system, this is how we run this’ whereas this year is more about developing the individual player and integrating our system more slowly.”
With such a young squad, and the approach the coaching staff is taking, having a veteran transfer player like Tay Weaver join the core of Jordan Goodwin, Hasahn French and Fred Thatch extremely helpful. Members of the coaching staff have praised Weaver in his ability to lead by example in the relatively short time he has been with the program saying “He’s been around it, he has done it, he’s lived it, he knows what it means to be in college and take care of his business”.
The different approach to the off-season indicates a commitment to an idea Head Coach Travis Ford has mentioned a lot in his tenure as Billikens Head Coach, adaptation. Consistent, strong programs adapt to what is put in front of them or what is needed to maintain success, rather than staying rigid to a winning formula with a previous group. Recognizing that a younger team has different needs is in tune with that principle. The willingness to adapt signals an understanding of how to parlay the triumphs of a single season into multiple years of success without multiple off years, something past Billiken coaches have had trouble accomplishing.
Most preseason chatter and speculation have the Billikens sitting in the 6 to 8 range in terms of rankings in the A10. Which is to be expected, after graduating over half of your roster that had consequential playing time, in a year where Dayton, VCU, and Davidson are all expected to be At-Large bid contenders for the NCAA tournament, the Billikens hype outside of St. Louis is middle of the pack. But despite the drop off in experience and external expectations, the internal goals and expectations are consistent, “The first round (of the NCAA Tournament) isn’t good enough for us”, Assistant Coach Ford Stuen said, “We’re trying to get to the point where getting to the tournament is like clockwork… we want to get there and make Sweet Sixteen’s and Elite Eights and Final Fours and I really don’t see a reason we can’t do that…and I think we’re headed in the right direction.”