Billiken season is finally here. After taking a 222 day break after the loss to Virginia Tech in the NCAA tournament, SLU will be back on the floor for the first time officially tonight. While the game is only an exhibition, it is an official game.
Team Blue has technically already played a game so far, facing off against Loyola-Chicago to close out their recent fall break training camp trip to Chicago, but little is known about the secret-scrimmage. All I have been told is the Billikens won by 7, and that they pressed for 40 complete minutes.
So, if you’d like, you can call the Billikens 1-0 in the preseason, but officially, the Billikens welcome the Kentucky Wesleyan Panthers into Chaifetz Arena for their preseason opener. The Panthers are a Division 2 program that competes in the Great Midwest Athletic Conference.
Coach Travis Ford has already announced his starters for the matchup, with Hasahn French and Jordan Goodwin leading the way as the pair make their Junior year debuts. Sophomore’s Fred Thatch Jr and Demarius Jacobs join them and the starters will be rounded out by Freshmen center Jimmy Bell Jr.
French, Goodwin, and Thatch are not surprising in the least. The three of them are the only returners to play significant minutes last season. Jacobs and Bell making the starting lineup would have been a complete shock had you had asked me in August when the team got back to campus. But there was enough chatter around the program in the last couple of weeks to dampen the surprise.
For Jacobs, making the starting lineup points to major offseason growth. Having missed extended periods of time last season due to injury, it wasn’t clear what his role in the future was going to be. It seems something has ‘clicked’ in him and he is now trusted with starting the game.
Travis Ford made it clear last year, and into the summer he was hoping to add a true center so as to allow Hasahn French to play more minutes at his natural power forward position. So, it’s not an overwhelmingly surprising that Ford has Bell starting.
Bell has made significant improvements to not only his game but his physicality. Dropping significant weight from his frame, and reportedly drastically improving his conditioning has led to Jimmy getting first-team minutes in practice.
That all being said, Coach Ford made it clear before practice Tuesday that this starting lineup is the group, he feels is best suited to start in specific and they will play a wide variety of lineup combinations throughout the game, “I think it’ll be the best guys to start the game. Is that the five that will be in the last 2-3 minutes of the game? Well, I don’t know about that. I’ve never been a coach that says my very best five have to start the game. Sometimes you start a game to keep someone out of foul trouble…and were doing that a little bit.”
The Kentucky Wesleyan Panthers come to SLU with a new head coach but an aging team. Drew Cooper was hired in the off-season to lead the Panthers after leading Division Three Thomas More College to two conference championships and NCAA appearances.
The KWU roster features seven seniors and two juniors, in stark contrast to the extremely young Billikens roster. Senior guard Adam Goetz shot 42.4 percent (73-of-172) from 3-point range last year and lead his team in scoring averaging 15.4 points per game. They also have two seven-footers coming into the program after medically redshirting last season. Nate Stevens, a native of England, and Sasha Sukhanov from Russia. Both big men could provide challenges for the Bills.
The Panthers will hope to use their experience and three-point shooting to combat the Billikens. Coach Ford made it a priority in practice Tuesday to focus on guarding transition offense and eliminating threes.
2004 marked the start of the NCAA mandating that programs play exhibition games against programs in other divisions. SLU has fared very well in that time, going 22-0. Even given that record, it’s clear Travis Ford isn’t taking the game lightly, using the opportunity to teach his young team how to prepare for an opponent. Though it’s hard to imagine Ford and his staff won’t take the opportunity to try some unconventional lineups or give some floor time to guys who may not get much of it later in the year. Especially, if the Billikens blow the game open at any point.
There will not be any streams or television coverage of the matchup, but the game will be available on the radio in St. Louis on KSHE 95 (94.7fm) as 101.1 will be carrying the Blues game. You can tune in to the game at 7pm central time Wednesday night.