Friday, January 17, 2014

Fordham/Saint Louis Preview

Atlantic 10 Player of the Year contender Dwayne Evans becomes latest challenge for Fordham, who is still in search of first conference win. (Photo courtesy of Saint Louis University)

The Fordham losing streak has hit five, dropping the Rams to 7-9 on the year and 0-3 in Atlantic 10 play, with the competition not getting any more favorable for Tom Pecora's group now that reigning A-10 champion Saint Louis welcomes Fordham into the Chaifetz Arena tomorrow.

At 16-2 on the year, the No. 24 Billikens are the second ranked team Fordham has faced this year after playing Syracuse to an 89-74 defeat at the Carrier Dome this past November that featured one of many career nights for senior Branden Frazier, and are among the stingiest defenses in the nation, yielding just 58 points per game to opposing teams. Saint Louis has undergone several personnel changes this season with backcourt anchor Kwamain Mitchell and sharpshooting Australian Cody Ellis having graduated, but the mainstays of last year's league championship core are back, namely double-double threat Dwayne Evans, and arguably the best defensive backcourt in the nation of Jordair Jett and Mike McCall.

Jim Crews is in his second full season at the helm of the Billikens, but Saint Louis' players are still recruits of the late great Rick Majerus, who coached Saint Louis for five years before finally stepping aside due to medical issues that, sadly, led to his tragic passing in December of 2012. To help get to know Majerus' talent that is now honing its craft under Crews, we welcome Tom Timmermann, who covers the Billikens for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, in for our pregame Q&A as Fordham enters a hostile road environment.

Jaden Daly: If you had to grade the Billikens' Atlantic 10 championship defense thus far, what letter would Saint Louis receive, and why?

Tom Timmermann: I'd have to give them an A. They're consistently holding teams to under .9 points per possession, and have held their past six opponents to 60 points or less. They're very hard to score on. (The most points they've allowed this season is 70 to Wichita State, and it's not a tempo issue.) They force teams into taking shots they don't want to take.

JD: Looking at Austin McBroom and his numbers this year, it seems like he's the new Cody Ellis for Jim Crews this season. Is there any similarity between the two, and if McBroom is totally different, what sets him apart from Ellis?

TT: Well, McBroom is about a foot shorter, so that's one big difference. With Ellis gone, SLU lost a big low post presence. After a slow start, McBroom's 3-point shot has come around, and that's been a big plus for SLU, which was having a very hard time out there. They don't have the pick and pop capability that Ellis gave them last season. McBroom is a good ballhandler and the team's best free throw shooter. Because of his play, SLU is going with a three-guard offense a lot more.

JD: Jordair Jett has really stepped up in A-10 play, becoming the second scoring option behind Dwayne Evans as he replaces Kwamain Mitchell this year. How much of an offensive improvement can be seen in Jett's game right away?

TT: Last year, they didn't need him as much because they had plenty of other scorers. He could be a defense-first guy. What SLU lost most from last season was offense from Mitchell and Ellis, so they need him to score more. With refs cracking down, supposedly, on hand checks, it's a lot easier for Jett to drive to the basket to score. He has a good first step. He's also strong going to the rim, as opposed to some of his teammates.

JD: None of Saint Louis' regulars averages more than 30 minutes per game. How soon do you anticipate conditioning becoming a factor against a thin Fordham team that routinely plays Branden Frazier and Jon Severe for at least 35 minutes every night?
TT: SLU's averages are down in part because key players have been getting in foul trouble or because situations haven't required it. When SLU has needed Jett or Evans to go 35, they can. But SLU has routinely gone with eight or nine players, and use all 11 scholarship players if needed. Much of it depends on if they're going big or small. They really have just three guards.

JD: Finally, the Billiken defense is as stingy as they come, yielding just 58 points per game in typical Rick Majerus fashion. How profound is Majerus' influence on this group even thirteen months after his passing?

TT: Well, Majerus taught the five seniors this defense for two seasons, and Crews wisely hasn't changed much. He doesn't get brought up all that much, but he installed this system and drove it into their heads, and Crews relies on them a lot since they know it so well, in some ways better than he does. 

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