College Basketball season is officially back. September 24 marks the day that Division 1 programs can officially begin their practice schedule. With new NCAA rules organizing the official schedule, programs are now allowed to begin practice 42 days before the first game of the season. That being said within those 42 days, teams must take 12 days off from practice.
What this essentially means is that any team that opens up practice today would have to take at least 2 days off a week from now until opening night. The Billikens though will not be officially opening practice until Friday afternoon with their first official practice happening just hours before Billiken Madness. Despite taking the extra couple of days to start the year, Head Coach Travis Ford is still amazed by how early the year is starting “In my 23 years I don’t think we’ve ever started official practice in September”.
By taking Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday off, the Billikens will have already knocked off three of their twelve needed off days, allowing the Bills to get a little creative with how they spend the next 42 days working. “We’re taking off two days a week for about three weeks then we go down to one, it’s given us a lot of flexibility”.
Due to the start of practice being delayed, there was not much to be done at media day in terms of action. The biggest shocks of the day came in the form of four new uniforms be unveiled for display. Updated and slightly tweaked versions of the Blue, White, and Black jerseys came as expected, with only subtle changes to the fonts used on names and numbers. The major addition to the Billiken stylebook is a “grey” alternate jersey. The “grey” is a hazy light shade that I initially described as beige but was quickly corrected by just about everyone in attendance. So, grey it is.
The jersey features a medium-sized Billiken that sits directly above boxed shape numbers. The design was promised to be ‘unique’ and indeed that it is, but it does lack the creative ‘pop’ expected of an alternate jersey in 2019. That being said, the changes made to the core three colors are improvements to be sure. The design mastermind behind all the changes come from the top, with Travis Ford motivating and “inspiring” all the alterations.
The three Billikens chosen to model the new look were Fred Thatch Jr, Hasahn French, and Jordan Goodwin. Ford casually referred to them as “The Big Three”, and while the name may be made kind of in jest, the expectations for the returning group are clear, the team will only go as far as they take them. “A lot of our success will come from how well do Jordan, Hasahn, and Fred lead this team” Coach Ford explained “For us to have any type of success, it’s going to be essential that those three guys lead every single day. On the court, off the court, by example, by how they play, by how they lead.”
The composition of this team, in regards to how the rotations will play out, is still unclear. With 11 players legitimately vying for playing time, all with unique skill sets, it’s not obvious to anyone how the 200 minutes a game will shake out. What is becoming incredibly clear is how this team intends to play, “We’re gonna be fast” Jordan Goodwin explained “The only reason to bring the ball up the court is if it’s a dead ball, other than that we should be running, we should be racing. We got bigs who can bring the ball up the court, we got wings who can bring the call up the court. We got all skill guys”.
Since coming to Saint Louis, Travis Ford has preached how much he has wanted to get out and run on offense and press on defense. He has yet to truly recognize that vision with the Bills for a variety of reasons, but we saw just how impactful it could be last March when they effectively did just that for four nights in Brooklyn and walked away with a conference Championship. The 2019/2020 roster is the deepest in terms of talent Ford has had and he now has all the tools he wants to push the pace and play with tempo. “Coach has been on us hard about conditioning…(because) this is a team that’s going to press, 94 feet the whole game. We got bodies this year, we have enough guys that can do it…a lot of freshmen with young legs.”
The Billikens have a long way to go still before the season starts. 42 days of practice can be like an eternality to the people involved. But beyond the literal time between now and opening tip. The Bills stare down a menacing conference schedule. Travis Ford says the Atlantic 10 is as good as it’s been since the conference put 6 teams in the NCAA tournament. “There’s no way around our league not being great”. Ford sang the praises of each of his opposing teams in the conference during his scrum, so he is very aware of just how good the league could be. Even projecting that the A10 could potentially place as many 6 teams into March Madness. But with a young talented roster, anything is possible. The Billikens could have everything fall their way and end up with a top-four seed in the A10 and make a run at repeating as conference champs…they could also take a step back and struggle due to a freshman learning curve and finish 11th, that’s why they play the games.
The long trek to March begins now, but as the Chinese proverb says, “A journey of 1000 miles begins with a single step”. That single step is Friday when the Bills open practice, then host Billiken Madness that evening at 730, an event free to the public.