Despite winning the Atlantic-10 regular season and conference tournament titles a year ago, college basketball fans might look at the AP poll each week and wonder who the Saint Louis Billikens are. The Atlantic-10 leaders have won 17-straight games, but aren’t a traditional national power, or even one of the common mid-major schools in the mold of a Butler, Xavier, Gonzaga or Wichita State that have become mainstays of the top 25 or have made deep runs in the NCAA tournament. But this season might be the one when Saint Louis makes its deep run, and thanks to the man leading the Billikens from the sideline.
Jim Crews guided his Saint Louis club to its 23rd win of the season Saturday afternoon — a 64-62 triumph over VCU that improved the Billikens record to 23-2 and 10-0 in the A-10. Many people were wondering just how good Saint Louis was and pointed to this, the first of two conference games against the Rams, as being the true tests for the Billikens. Crews’ charges have now passed the first exam, with the other coming March 1 in Richmond, Va. And while Crews might be on a bigger stage now as a head coach than he’s been previously, winning isn’t uncommon for Crews, who just turned 60 and played on Indiana‘s unbeaten 1976 NCAA champions.
Stepping into a tough situation at Saint Louis for former coach Rick Majerus, who couldn’t continue coaching due to health issues and later passed away, Crews has gone 51-9 at the school, and has the Billikens ranked 12th in the nation. He’s long been one of the most respected figures in Midwestern basketball, and other than six years he spent adrift as head coach at Army (where it’s hard for anyone to win), Crews’ track record is one of the best you’ll find. He won 294 games in 17 years at Evansville (full disclosure: my alma mater), winning 20 games in a season six times and taking the Purple Aces to the NCAA tournament on four occasions. Until recently, UE has struggled to be relevant since Crews’ departure after the 2001-02 season. Fittingly, Evansville has improved the last two years with Marty Simmons as head coach, who played for Crews at UE.
Crews not only played at Indiana under head coach Bobby Knight, but Knight was Crews’ coaching mentor as well. Crews started as an Indiana assistant immediately after his playing career ended, staying in Bloomington until taking the Evansville job for the 1985-86 season. Crews’ Evansville teams played the “Indiana Way,” as it were, and the Billikens follow much of the same principles. The difference being, this Saint Louis team has much more talent. Crews’ solid coaching acumen combined with the level of talent he has to work with at Saint Louis has turned the Billikens into one of the best teams in the country.
And it’s safe now to put Saint Louis in that company. Through 25 games, the Billikens’ only losses are to undefeated Wichita State (70-65) and then-No. 10 Wisconsin (63-57). You can argue that they didn’t have any standout wins until today (VCU won at current No. 17 Virginia early in the season), but at this point of the campaign, if you’re 23-2 overall and 10-0 in a respectable conference, you deserve to be in the conversation for at least the Sweet 16, if not more. Such a run would be a new high point in Crew’s career, but with 404 wins under his belt, six regular-season conference championships and three conference tournament titles, a deep run in the NCAA Tournament is the only thing missing from Crews’ resumé as a head coach. Given how Saint Louis is playing and responding to his leadership, that dream might just be realized this season.