Column: March could be magic for SLU -

Column: March could be magic for SLU

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Saint Louis Billikens Rob Loe dunks the basketball in front of LaSalle Explorers Ramon Galloway in the first half at the Chaifetz Arena in St. Louis on March 9, 2013.    UPI/Bill Greenblatt By BILL GREENBLATT Saint Louis Billikens Rob Loe dunks the basketball in front of LaSalle Explorers Ramon Galloway in the first half at the Chaifetz Arena in St. Louis on March 9, 2013. UPI/Bill Greenblatt By BILL GREENBLATT

( -- As the college basketball regular season comes to a close in the next few weeks, all eyes will be on the NCAA Selection Committee as they attempt to make sense of the madness that was the regular season.

With conference championships about to begin, college basketball has already seen its fair share of “March Madness.” Seven No. 1-ranked teams have been upset and the top five teams in the AP poll every week have been changing as often as Metta World Peace changes his name. Teams like Miami (FL), Gonzaga and Indiana have dethroned perennial powerhouses such as North Carolina and last year’s national champion Kentucky, which probably wouldn’t have made the Tournament until their upset of Florida. And in the heart of the country, the Big Ten Conference, known historically as a football conference, has taken over the defunct Big East as the pinnacle of college basketball.

It would be hard to pick a year in the last decade that had so many unanswered questions for the Selection Committee. With no-clear cut No.1 seeds and no favorite to raise the national championship in April, the race to make it to Atlanta for the Final Four is as open as ever. For Saint Louis University (SLU), which ended a phenomenal regular season, that could equate to a long run in March and a good chance to make their first Elite Eight appearance in over half a century.

It wasn’t that long ago when former Billiken head coach Rick Majerus and his players wept at their postgame press conference following their four-point loss to top-seeded Michigan State in the second round of the 2012 NCAA Tournament. It was the emotional culmination of a team that had gone from 12 wins in 2011 to 26 in 2012, only to be seconds away from the school’s first Sweet Sixteen appearance since 1957. The college basketball world didn’t know at the time, but it would also be the culmination of a historic career for one of college basketball’s greatest coaches.

SLU’s journey since that moment has been “unparalleled” in college basketball. Last summer, the Billikens lost their top scorer and sharpshooter Brian Conklin to graduation, while finding out that Majerus would not be coaching them in the fall due to health concerns. While SLU returned six of their seven top scorers from the previous season, the Billikens suffered an incredible emotional loss when they learned that Majerus passed away on December 1.

The team’s record on December 1 was 3-3. Since that time, they have rattled off two 9+-game win streaks en route to a 24-6 overall record, made it as high as No. 15 in the AP Top 25 Poll and won their first conference title since their Missouri Valley Conference days in 1970-1971. They roared through their Atlantic 10 schedule, which featured two recent Final Four teams in Butler and Virginia Commonwealth. They have been almost unbeatable at home. They thrashed then-second place LaSalle on Saturday in the regular season finale to clinch the regular season Atlantic 10 title.

Most impressive is that all of this has been accomplished with an interim head coach in Jim Crews, who at the beginning of the season had no assurance he would be in Saint Louis past March. It’s about time to remove the interim tag from his title.

Last Saturday’s game against LaSalle showed just how dominant SLU can be. After LaSalle gave the Billikens a tough first half, SLU went on a tear in the second twenty minutes and ended up turning their three-point halftime lead into a 24-point win. The defense was stellar, as always, and held Explorer leading scorer Ramon Galloway to 3 of 12 shooting and eight points. SLU came out of the halftime break and shot 17-for-20 and almost 60% for the game. The usual suspects were in good form Saturday, as junior Dwayne Evans scored 16 points and led the Billikens with 17 rebounds. Senior Kwamain Mitchell had a night to remember with 19 points and six assists.

SLU enters this weekend’s A10 Tournament at the Barclay’s Center in Brooklyn as the No. 1 seed. While a few wins and a place in the A10 title game would surely boost their reputation heading into the tournament, SLU is a lock for March Madness. The latest projected bracket among various analysts has the Billikens as a No. 5 seed in the tournament, but expect that seed to go up if SLU can come out of the A10 Tournament with a few wins, especially the title.

Every year there is that one team that surprises college basketball and ruins everyone’s brackets. George Mason did it in 2006, and in the past two years, Butler and Virginia Commonwealth (teams who SLU beat a combined three times this season) went on magical runs. While SLU will not be as low a seed as the previous three teams, the Billikens are just as, if not more, dangerous. It could be that the captivating run the Billikens are on continues into late March and possibly April as the school is in position for its first Elite 8 appearance in over 50 years.

“I’m sure he’s (Majerus) proud right now,” Senior Cody Ellis said after the Billikens clinched their first regular season conference title Saturday. “He’s watching this from somewhere.”

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