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Bills survive Bethune-Cookman, look forward to conference play.

*This article can be originally found on ScoopswithDannyMac.com*

Hasahn French said something very interesting post-game Sunday. To paraphrase, “Has” is saying that the Billikens hang their hat on their defensive presence, and they know that they probably won’t go out and really ‘knock out’ any team they play. He’s not wrong, but that can be incredibly frustrating to hear from a team as talented as this one.

The style of play this SLU squad plays is not a new one, defense and toughness first, offense second. It is essentially the calling card of Travis Ford basketball. It allows them to play far more competitively against the high-end competition, but it also leads to stinkers like this one. Despite being the most talented offensive group in the Ford era of SLU basketball, they lack the system to truly break away from teams like Bethune-Cookman.

But what they do have in large amounts,  is guys who understand what it takes to win basketball games. Jordan Goodwin, Hasahn French, Yuri Collins, Tay Weaver, Javonte Perkins, etc. are all cut from the same cloth in that they are “do whatever it takes” kind of people. Considering the youth of the team, both in age and experience in a Billikens uniform and playing a T. Ford strategy, you’d expect this group to drop at least a game this season already considering how tight they’ve played some of their weaker opponents.

But they haven’t. They’ve won big games against strong and weak opponents. When faced with adversity they overcame. Gibson Jimerson goes down hurt; Tay Weaver steps up to be the go-to guy from three despite getting limited minutes to that point. Since Gibson’s season-ending surgery was revealed prior to the K-State game, Tay is 6 of 10 from deep and has seen his minutes spike from 7 or 8 a game, to 21 in each of the last two.

Javonte Perkins has evolved and now fills his role as a go-to scoring threat far more effectively than he did at the beginning of the year. He is now become an essential floor member, playing over 30 minutes a night regularly, and despite low-efficiency numbers statistically, his ability on the floor is clear and his value as an all-around scorer is irreplaceable in this group.

This is all just a complicated way of saying that the Billikens are deeper than they ever have been under Travis Ford. They have risen to each challenge thus far, and, at the very least, have learned how to win close games.

The win over Bethune-Cookman was not pretty, but it certainly demonstrated something about this team. It showed that this group can survive extended minutes against quality big men without Hasahn French: a testament to the development of Jimmy Bell and Terrence Hargrove. Cletrell Pope is a legitimate big man presence and I can’t understand why he is playing at a school as lowly rated as Bethune-Cookman when he could be playing in a far more prestigious conference. He did get 19 boards, a record for a visitor at Chaifetz Arena, but the young SLU pair bent but didn’t break, an important developmental milestone in the progress of both young big men.

It showed that despite the loss of Jimerson, there is enough shooting (and clutch shooting) to space the floor effectively. The one-man effectiveness of Jimerson and how much focus he can draw is impossible to replace as of right now, but the team has enough shooters to make a difference and force opponents into being honest around the perimeter. Javonte Perkins and Tay Weaver are both absolute threats, whether it’s off the dribble or just a shot from deep, they can beat you from out there.

We also continue to learn that if Demarius Jacobs isn’t involved in the flow of the offense early, he is essentially invisible moving into the later parts of the game. Demarius has shown flashes of being an X-Factor type player, but far too often he simply isn’t present enough. Against tougher competition, his impact as a shooter, ball handler, slasher, and defender is vital to success.

The conference schedule is going to be ruthless and will test every single team in the A-10. Someone is going to most likely emerge as an unlikely at-large bid candidate at the end of the year because of how good the conference has been thus far. SLU, Rhode Island, Richmond, Duquesne, Davidson, St. Bonaventure, and George Mason all believe they can be that team to make the leap and join the big dogs of VCU and Dayton in the upper end of the conference. And even in that case, it’s not inconceivable that one of those two teams fall a bit into that second tier should they lose a close game or two.

If the Billikens want to be the team to emerge as the contender, they will have to play with everyone contributing, and win some games they aren’t ‘expected’ to. Their first test, Duquesne, is an excellent starting point to get that momentum rolling.

The Billikens margin for error in the conference is extremely limited. The goal to both win the conference and put yourself in an at-large bid position essentially affords you to lose no more than 5 games, with a more realistic number being 4. Looking at the calendar, that is very possible for this squad, but it is equally possible to drop as many as 9 if things go poorly.

The Billikens have given themselves an opportunity to be seen as a top tier team. They now have to seize that opportunity and prove what many Billiken fans believe is true; they are an NCAA tournament team. Not every game is a must-win from here on out but, having said that, the hard truth is there are certainly must-win games. It starts with Duquesne.

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