Could Travis Ford’s Saint Louis Billikens Take a Page Out of the Old Missouri Tigers Playbook?

Rob Ferguson-USA TODAY Sports
Rob Ferguson-USA TODAY Sports /

Could Travis Ford utilize a tactic that Frank Haith once utilized while pressed for depth at Mizzou?

While there’s a ton of optimism surrounding Travis Ford’s first season as the head basketball coach at Saint Louis University, expectations for success in 2016-17 probably shouldn’t be sky-high.

Ford has historically taken a year to rebuild the programs that he’s taken over; he went 7-19 in his first season at Eastern Kentucky and 13-15 in his first year at Massachusetts before eventually leading both programs to records well above .500. While he went 23-12 in his first year at Oklahoma State, he was taking over a team that was 17-16 and was in much better shape than SLU is right now.

While it’s unreasonable to expect that Ford is just all of a sudden going to take the Billikens to the NCAA Tournament in his first season on the job, there’s a definite expectation that his first team will be a significant improvement over the last two that Jim Crews coached. The Billikens were a combined 22-42 over the past two seasons, and that kind of inferiority simply can’t be accepted under Ford.

Ford will have some personnel challenges as he attempts to bridge the gap between Crews’s recruits and his own. In the interim, though, could Ford take a page out of the book of his cross-state neighbors at Mizzou, a school which he happened to attend for a year?

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From a 2015-16 team that had already been stretched pretty thin to begin with by transfers and dismissals, the Billikens lost guard Ash Yacoubou to graduation, while forwards Milik Yarbrough and Brett Jolly and guards Miles Reynolds and Marcus Bartley decided to transfer. In replacing those guys, Ford seemingly did a great job of recruiting over a limited period of time and assembled a group of players that will be able to contribute sooner than later.

Unfortunately, three of the four players that Ford added after being hired on March 30—forwards D.J. Foreman and Javon Bess and guard Adonys Henriquez—were transfers from other D1 schools, and all three of them will have to sit out the 2016-17 season due to NCAA regulations. That already limits his available stable of scholarship players to nine.

Considering that three of the Billikens’ nine available players—true freshmen Zeke Moore and Jalen Johnson and redshirt freshman Elliott Welmer—have never played in a NCAA game, it’s easy to see how a short rotation could come into play, especially during close games at the front end of the schedule.

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Granted, the Billikens do have two walk-ons who are more talented than most: Aaron Hines, who started 15 of the Billikens’ 20 conference games and registered 5.1 points per game during A-10 play, and Markos Psimitis, who had a strong freshman campaign across the street at Harris-Stowe before transferring to SLU last year. It’s difficult to imagine them getting minutes on a consistent basis since they’re not on scholarship, though.

This is where the Mizzou comparison comes into play. The 2011-12 Tigers had two scholarship players who were ineligible to play that season: Earnest Ross, a transfer from Auburn, and Keion Bell, a transfer from Pepperdine. Arguably their best returning player, forward Laurence Bowers, was forced to sit out the season after tearing his ACL during a preseason workout. Thus, the Tigers went into just eight scholarship players, plus a solid cast of three walk-ons (including repurposed tight end Andrew Jones, who was recruited back to the hardwood out of necessity in December.)

As forward Kadeem Green decided to transfer in early January and the competitiveness of conference play eliminated the walk-ons’ ability to soak up minutes regularly, the Tigers were forced to use a seven-man rotation consisting of forwards Steve Moore and Ricardo Ratliffe and guards Kim English, Marcus Denmon, Michael Dixon, Matt Pressey, and Phil Pressey. Luckily, that group achieved unbelievable success. Coach Frank Haith found a way to keep everyone fresh and make changes at a maddening pace, and despite the short rotation, only English, Denmon, and Phil Pressey averaged more than 30 minutes a game.

Could Travis Ford's Billikens take a hint from the 2011-12 Mizzou team, which was anchored by Phil Pressey?Mandatory Credit: Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports
Could Travis Ford’s Billikens take a hint from the 2011-12 Mizzou team, which was anchored by Phil Pressey? Mandatory Credit: Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports /

That Tigers team went undefeated during their non-conference schedule and lost just four games during conference play. In their final season as a Big 12 program, they defeated Kansas at Mizzou Arena, but perhaps more significantly, they took KU to overtime at Allen Fieldhouse before losing 87-86. Unfortunately, the Tigers delivered a clunker of an effort in their NCAA tournament opener and were upset 86-84 by the 15th seed, Norfolk State, but overall you’d have difficulty arguing that 2011-12 wasn’t one of the more successful seasons in Mizzou history.

With all of that said, SLU’s 2016-17 roster isn’t as well-equipped for a short rotation as that Mizzou roster was; the trio of Welmer, who stands 6-foot-9, along with 6-foot-10 Austin Gillmann and 6-foot-11 Matt Neufeld, is a group of guys who probably aren’t well-fit to average even 20 minutes a game, let alone 30. 6-foot-7, 240-pound Reggie Agbeko is also a player who plays a power game and probably isn’t the best guy to be consistently getting minutes in the high 20s, so the Billikens are likely going to have to rely on Roby, Mike Crawford, and Jermaine Bishop to regularly soak up between 25-32 minutes.

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If guys like Johnson, Moore, or Hines step up, it’s all gravy. For now, though, Travis Ford and crew should look to Crawford, the team’s top returning scorer (10.3 PPG) and Bishop, a rising sophomore who averaged 11.7 points during conference play, as guys who can play the Pressey/English roles in this rotation and help the Billikens succeed even without an exceptional amount of depth.