November 20, 2011
Yes, it was a 9 a.m. game for a West Coast team traveling East. Yes, Washington has been a dreadful road team the past few years. Yes, the Huskies displayed a lack of poise, minimal patience and woeful shot selection.
But when listing the factors that led to Saint Louis' surprisingly one-sided 77-64 victory on Sunday, don't forget the most important one: This year's Billikens are pretty good.
Thanks to a stifling defense that limited Washington's fast-break 0pportunites and a precise offense that exposed the Huskies' inexperience, Saint Louis quickly spoiled former Billikens coach Lorenzo Romar's return to the Arch City. Saint Louis led by double figures after eight minutes, by 25 at halftime and by as many as 29 in the second half before Washington made the score respectable in the final 10 minutes.
The convincing victory is an early sign that Saint Louis will be the Atlantic 10 team most capable of challenging Xavier and Temple for the conference championship this year. The Billikens lost 19 games last season during a tumultuous year that began with their two best players getting suspended, but the return of star Kwamain Mitchell and development of forwards Brian Conklin and Cody Ellis has the Billikens poised for a turnaround.
What has keyed Saint Louis' 3-0 start so far this season is a formidable defense that held Tennessee State to 37 points on 29.8 percent shooting and Southern Illinois to 42 points on a mere eight field goals.
Washington had a bit more success in the second half after the outcome was no longer in doubt, but the Huskies shot just 32.1 percent in the first half, missed 5 of 6 three-point attempts and committed 10 first-half turnovers. They got almost no production from their vaunted transition attack and showed little commitment to running an offense, making wild 1-on-1 forays to the rim with 25 on the shot clock rather than attempting to work for a higher-percentage shot.
If Saint Louis' defense was a known commodity, its offensive efficiency was eye-opening. The Billikens shot 60 percent in the first half and 52.8 percent for the game, with Conklin (25 points) and Mitchell (18) doing the most damage.
It's possible Saint Louis won't be able to maintain that level of precision offensively, but the defense is a constant. That's what will make the Billikens a threat to win next week's 76 Classic in Anaheim and to make the NCAA tournament for the first time under veteran coach Rick Majerus in March.