The Saint Louis Billikens have provided as great an NCAA tournament story as any school heading into the first weekend.
Playing in the memory of their late coach Rick Majerus adds the emotional human-interest aspect that appeals to diehards and casual fan alike. Getting major buzz out of what is nominally a mid-major — though many consider the top half of this group right up there with almost any conference — places a check in the little-engine-that-could box from national perspective.
To cap it off, they captured the fairly large demographic that didn’t watch an Atlantic 10 game until this past Sunday, showing their mettle on national television with a 62-56 A-10 tournament title win over the VCU Rams. Nothing seems more trendy or fan-favorite friendly.
Yet I can’t help but join the “sleeper” wagon.
Now let’s get this straight: When I say sleeper, I don’t mean “tiny school makes it to the Sweet 16, hurrah!” The Billikens are seeded fourth, which makes that classification kind of ridiculous. By sleeper, I mean taking down Louisville.
Yes, the tournament’s top overall seed. Saint Louis has been too consistently good the past couple months to consider picking much less worthy of “sleeper” designation.
I became a believer of them as a dangerous tournament team during an A-10 run that saw the Billikens take 15 of their last 16 games. I became a believer in them as an Elite 8 squad when revising my bracket Tuesday night, after harkening back to their season sweep of the press-happy VCU Rams.
Not only did Saint Louis drop them by 14 in February, but more importantly, they showed that they could indeed chew up a press during a 16-minute, turnover-free stretch in the A-10 title win.
The way VCU guards every inch of the court and the way Louisville does it are not exact comparisons, but still produce a very valuable sample of what a team with a ball-handler like Kwamaine Mitchell and several adept passers playing cohesively — Dwayne Evans, Jordair Jett and the list goes on — can accomplish against such a frenetic defensive attack. This squad can still make noise in a stacked Midwest Region.