One of the more emotional stories in college basketball this season has been the story of the Saint Louis Billikens. The Billikens dedicated their season to the memory of their coach Rick Majerus. Majerus died on December 1, 2012 while sitting out this season due to health concerns. Since then, the Billikens have taken college basketball by storm while morphing from just another good team trying to be great into a realistic Final Four pick.
Since Majerus’ death, the Billikens have gone 25-3, including today’s 64-44 win over the New Mexico St. Aggies. This run has also seen winning streaks of nine, 11 and their current streak of five wins in a row. Two of the Billikens’ three losses since Majerus’ death were in overtime, and two of their three losses since Majerus’ death lay between their nine and 11 game win streaks. During this run, the Billikens also won the Atlantic 10 regular season and conference tournament titles.
The Atlantic 10 has experienced one of its best seasons in recent memory in 2012-13. This past season in the A-10 was almost reminiscent of the conference’s glory days in the 1990s with the conference sending five teams (the Billikens, Virginia Commonwealth Rams, Butler Bulldogs, Temple Owls, and LaSalle Explorers) to the tournament while being one of the more entertaining conferences in college basketball.
So it isn’t as if this run by the Billikens is some kind of Cinderella run. This is a team that has proven to be ready to play with good, tough opponents. This is a team that has the kind of defense and scoring capabilities to stand up with any of the best in college basketball. This is something that will no doubt be put to the test should the Billikens keep winning in the tournament.
After today’s win, the Billikens will meet either the Oregon Ducks or Oklahoma St. Cowboys. A win there would set up a likely meeting with the overall number-one seed Louisville Cardinals. Should this scenario play itself out, a game against the Cardinals in the Sweet 16 would be probably the biggest game in the history of the Billikens’ basketball program.
It is the Billikens’ defense that has made this run continue to move full speed ahead. Whether playing tough in the paint, forcing turnovers or forcing poor shots out of their opponents (like today against the Aggies), the Billikens’ defense has become a legitimate force in college basketball. They have kept their opponents from scoring 60 points in 19 of their 25 wins since Majerus’ death, including all five of the victims of their current winning streak. Even more impressive is how often the Billikens have kept teams from getting past 50 points as seven of their wins after Majerus’ death have featured the Billikens’ opponent in the 40s for point total.
It is rare that a team loses their coach early in a season. Majerus was sitting this season out and thus not on the sidelines during the six games the Billikens played before his death, but that’s irrelevant. Majerus had brought a program that had not been to the NCAA tournament in around a decade back to relevance. More importantly, Majerus became a beloved figure on campus and to his players.
Playing for a coach or player that has died can be the biggest motivating tool in sports. It doesn’t work every time with the impact of that kind of death being too much for a team’s players to deal with sometimes. Other times it can bring out the best in each player while bringing the team together at the same time.
Look at the Indianapolis Colts of the NFL when their coach, Chuck Pagano, had to temporarily leave the team this past season to get treated for leukemia. The Colts were a team in a rebuilding year and didn’t seem destined to do anything other than lose games. When Pagano had to leave, the Colts rallied together and began to win. In the end, the Colts earned a playoff berth after going 2-14 the season before.
A coach or player’s death can be a powerful emotional, psychological, and spiritual tool when the team believes that they can best show their love and appreciation for the deceased by winning. The Billikens are in the middle of such an emotional winning run. It could end on Saturday, it could end in Atlanta, or it could end somewhere in between. I’m thinking somewhere in between, but you never know.