I planned to write this post Thursday night after watching Duquesne beat Saint Louis (SLU). Then I decided to hold off until watching the Billikens play Virginia Commonwealth (VCU) this evening.
During the second half of the telecast of this evening’s game on ESPN2 announcers Marc Kestecher and Fran Fraschilla made a comment about their conversation with SLU head coach Jim Crews earlier in the day before the game. They said Crews made the statement “the season is too long.”
Despite losing for the second straight time in conference play this evening – 67-56 to the Rams, the Billikens remain atop the Atlantic 10 (A10) standings and need only one more win to capture the regular season championship. This would give SLU the No. 1 seed in the A10 Tournament midway through this month before the big NCAA Tournament tips off March 20.
The thing I noticed this week in both the games against the Dukes and Rams is the Billikens looked completely out of sorts. Crews’ team looked fatigued for most of the game against Duquesne Thursday. They looked better this evening but still like they were trying to find energy to play.
When you play a team like Shaka Smart and his Rams’ “Havoc” defense you need all the energy and bench support you can muster. Unfortunately for Crews his bench isn’t deep and with the amount of close games his team played in the month of February the season finally began to show the toll it’s taken on SLU both physically and mentally.
Since Feb. 8 and prior to this week’s games the Billikens won their games by 3.5 points per game. The bench scoring for SLU combined in those four games was 50 points. In only two of the games did more than one player get more than 10 minutes of playing time. Austin McBroom is the only player who had double figure minutes in all four games in February before the Billikens dropped the two games this week.
Yes, SLU is a senior-laden team, but even most veteran of teams wear down. Experienced teams have been known to peak too soon and I am beginning to wonder if that’s the case with the Billikens. If it has then Jim Crews has his worked cut out for him this month if SLU is to advance past the first weekend of the NCAAs.
Before the two losses this week the Billikens had won a school-record 19 straight games. Along with the close games won keeping the streak alive may have mounted too much on the team.
The Billikens don’t play now until Wednesday night against Dayton. It will be an emotional night at Chaifetz Arena. It is senior night for the first group of players Rick Majerus brought to campus to build the program. They will play off the energy of the moment – like most teams do in the final home game of the season.
These next 72-96 hours Crews and his staff have to find a way to balance practice with making sure the players get adequate rest before Wednesday’s game. They are helped by the amount of hours they are allowed to practice per the guidelines of the NCAA.
At this point in the season how do you coach a team out of this type of slump? Can you coach a team out of fatigue? Can the team get its edge back in time to make a run in the tournament?
My answer to all three questions is – yes, yes and yes. And if a coach can do it Jim Crews is the one to get it done.
I like Jim Crews. I have ever since I met him at the Bob Knight Basketball School when I was kid. When he took the Evansville job in 1985 I thought he would take that job and build the program to be one of the best programs in the then Midwestern Collegiate Conference.
Actually had I listened to my Uncle Bill and my high school basketball coach, Dick Harmening, I most likely would have went to the University of the Evansville and been a manager for Crews and learned how to become an effective basketball coach. As it always seems to be – that’s another post for another day which is coming later this month.
For the most part Crews did put the Purple Aces on top of the MCC on a consistent basis. From 1985 through 1994 Evansville finished first or second six times. The Purple Aces went to the NCAA three of those times and the NIT twice. The lone NCAA tourney win came in 1989 in Tucson, Ariz. when Evansville upset Oregon State in a first round game.
In 1994 Evansville left the MCC for the Missouri Valley Conference. After the move the Purple Aces only won the MVC once under Crews to advance to the NCAA Tournament.
I also don’t think I was the only one who thought when and if Bob Knight could leave Indiana University on his own terms Crews would be the heir apparant for the Hoosiers. Unfortunately Knight did not leave on his own terms and was dismissed in September of 2000. Crews was still at Evansville but would leave to coach at Army in 2002.
Crews was let go at Army just prior to the beginning of the 2009-2010 season. For whatever the reason I totally believe everyone deserves a second chance. So did Majerus when in 2011 he brought Crews on as an assistant in 2011. I also think Majerus knew he was becoming increasingly sick and wanted to make sure his program would be in good hands in case he was forced to step down as the head coach of the Billikens.
I got a kick out of following the SLU message board last season as they kept speculating whether or not Crews would remain the head coach and have the “interim” tag taken off his title. There were a lot of posters who didn’t want Crews to continue being the coach even after he lead SLU to 28 wins, the A10 regular season and tournament championships and the NCAA Tournament. Crews was also named the A10 Coach of the Year as well as The Sporting News and National Association of Basketball Coaches “Coach of the Year.”
I watched and followed Crews’ teams when he was at Evansville – especially when they played Butler. I will fully admit I love my Bulldogs but it was tough cheering against Crews when his teams would play Butler. I also made it a point when I could to travel with the Butler media contingent to the games at Roberts Stadium when the Bulldogs faced the Purple Aces in Evansville. Seeing what he was able to do at Evansville I always thought if Crews got to a “big-time” program he would have even greater success.
Do I wish it would have been IU – for my Hoosier friends – yes most definitely. But I think we all should have figured out Knight wasn’t going to leave on his own accord – the way it went down in 2000 was probably the way it as going to go. Crews should have known that as well. When his name was hot for some prime jobs a couple of times maybe he should have jumped on one of those chances and got out of the Hoosier State’s “Pocket City.”
Yet in April the “interim” tag was removed and the SLU posters howled. Then in August Crews hired former IU great and NBA player Calbert Cheaney as one of his assistants. All suddenly was perfect in the Billiken world for its fan base. It was seen as the most brilliant move Crews had made. Then came the 19-game-winning streak and Crews was showing what Majerus and even I to an extent knew – Crews was the right man to coach SLU to its then-top-10 ranking.
Now the Billiken fans will really see what kind of coach Crews and how he can get his team through the final two regular season games and ready for the post season.
Then there’s Butler…
Much like SLU, Butler played its share of tight games throughout the season especially as the