November 28, 2011
ANAHEIM, Calif. — At a time when many college basketball players measure success by the accolades they receive or the Twitter followers they acquire, Saint Louis forward Brian Conklin is definitely an exception.
The hard-working senior is so unflinchingly humble and unassuming that he even cringes when a professor singles him out during lecture to congratulate him on a big victory.
"Someone in class brings a newspaper clipping about you, and the teacher goes, 'Oh, how many points did you have?' Conklin said with a smile. "It's almost embarrassing. I just want to be a regular student."
It's going to be difficult for Conklin or any of his teammates to avoid the spotlight the way the Billikens have turned heads so far this November.
With a convincing 83-63 victory over previously undefeated Oklahoma in Sunday night's title game of the 76 Classic, Saint Louis improved to 6-0 this season and further cemented its status as an Atlantic 10 title contender. The Billikens have now recorded double-digit victories over the Sooners, Villanova and Washington in the past eight days alone.
The last time Saint Louis appeared in the Associated Press Top 25, Bill Clinton was serving his first term as president, Mariah Carey's "Hero" was atop the Billboard charts and Michael Jordan was preparing to launch his baseball career. Expect that 17-year drought to end when the new polls are released Monday, not that any of the Billikens are especially excited about the potential for national recognition.
"We're not going to practice any differently and we're not going to play any differently," junior forward Cody Ellis said "We're going to stick to what we've been doing and what has made us successful."
Perhaps the Billikens don't mind a lack of notoriety simply because that's what they've always known.
Conklin, the son of an Oregon truck driver and school teacher, has emerged as the team's leading scorer and rebounder this season despite receiving minimal interest from any Pac-10 schools four years ago.
Even starting point guard Kwamain Mitchell, the team's most high-profile player entering the season, didn't appear on any top 100 recruiting rankings and only received late interest from major-conference programs.
When Saint Louis coach Rick Majerus noted after Sunday's game that Oklahoma guard Cameron Clark had an NBA body, he was asked if any of the Billikens had similar pro potential.
"We have some Saint Louis-ettes that are going to be good Lakers girls," he quipped. Then growing more serious, he said, "I think Brian, if he continues to play well like this, could play overseas at a certain level. Cody is a native of Australia, so he can probably play there. Can they play in the NBA? I doubt it. That's a hard league to play in."
How have the Billikens defeated four major-conference teams in eight days without any NBA talent on their roster? They've done it with physical screens, unselfish passes and precise cuts on offense and with consistent effort, good communication and unwavering trust on defense.
The increased comfort level of Saint Louis' upperclassmen in Rick Majerus' system was on display again against Oklahoma on Sunday as the Billikens dominated all facets of the game.
The Sooners couldn't focus their attention on stopping Conklin in the paint because Saint Louis' array of shooters knock down too many open shots, nor could they merely guard the three-point line because Conklin is too efficient one-on-one down low. The result was that Conklin matched his career high of 25 points on 9-for-11 shooting and the Billikens shot 9 of 17 from three-point range.
Oklahoma's rebounding and ability to get to the free throw line kept the score competitive into the early second half, but the Sooners' frustration increased as the deficit rose. By the time Saint Louis unleashed a 9-0 run to take a 68-50 lead with eight minutes left in the game, it was clear the Sooners had reached their breaking point.
"We're definitely one of the top defensive teams in the nation," Ellis said. "We play a style of defense not many teams in the country play. I feel like every game we've played so far, every team has been frustrated at some point. They definitely show that by flailing arms like you saw happen today and against Villanova. But we love it. That's how we play."
The scariest part of Saint Louis' success is that the Billikens are now done with the most difficult portion of their non-league schedule. Besides a road game at New Mexico on Dec. 31, Saint Louis should be heavily favored until the start of league play in January.
"I think they'll win a ton of games," Kruger said. "They have an experienced club, they respect what each-other can do and they play well together. I really like their team. I think they'll get national attention very quickly, and they're very deserving of that."