The Dagger - NCAAB

ANAHEIM, Calif. — Eight months removed from the most trying season of his illustrious career, St. Louis coach Rick Majerus has clearly regained his trademark rollicking sense of humor.

He bemoans the lack of an authentic custard stand in Southern California. He tells stories of his St. Louis players white water rafting and cliff jumping in the Ottawa River this past August. And he jokes that "there would have been the first tsunami ever in a river" if he had joined them.

In fact, the most stressful dilemma facing Majerus after the Billikens' impressive 80-68 victory over Villanova in the 76 Classic semifinals on Friday was whether to allow his team to go to Disneyland on the off day before Sunday's title game.

"I think I'm going to let them enjoy themselves," Majerus said. "I admire Bobby Knight, but Bobby Knight once took his team to Maui and told them to stay out of the sun and stay out of the water. You might as well go play a tournament in Gary, Indiana."

It was refreshing to see Majerus in such good spirits on Friday given all he endured last year. There were the sexual assault allegations that led to the season-long suspension of his two best players. There was the leg injury he sustained in a collision that kept him from coaching for more than three weeks. And there were the numerous late-night drives he made between St. Louis and Milwaukee to see his ailing mother, who died in August.

Majerus admits those hardships made for "a hard year," but he's moved past that now with the help of a team that has turned some heads the past two weeks.

A St. Louis team that went 12-19 a year ago has started 5-0 with wins over Washington and Villanova and should earn its first top 25 ranking of the Majerus era if it beats either Santa Clara or Oklahoma in Sunday's title game. What's more, the Billikens are doing it with stifling defense and unselfish, precision offense, a style reminiscent of Majerus' best Utah teams from the previous decade.

"They're very physical, they challenge you to stand strong on your screens and to take a straight line drive rather than a circular route, and we backed down on all those challenges," Villanova coach Jay Wright said. "Then offensively, they make the extra pass. They don't take the first shot or the second shot. They take the third shot. I can't say it was enjoyable to watch, but I respect them. If we weren't playing them it would have been enjoyable to watch."

Although the return of star guard Kwamain Mitchell and the development of lightly recruited forwards Brian Conklin and Cody Ellis have played a role in St. Louis' success, the biggest reason for the turnaround is the Billikens' commitment to defense.

Whether it's holding Tennessee State to 37 points, Southern Illinois to eight field goals or Washington to 32.1 percent first-half shooting, St. Louis has made each of its opponents work hard for points. They have guards who fight through screens and play fierce on-ball defense and big men who are strong enough to defend the post yet mobile enough to play sound help defense or step up to take a charge.

"Coach does a great job of instilling his defensive philosophy," Conklin said. "If I've been hard showing in practice and I have one misstep, he's sending us to do sprints. He holds us to a high standard. I think that's where the player development factor comes into play. He doesn't let you slip up. He holds you to that high standard the whole time. He can sense when you get below that and he brings you right back up."

Villanova shot 48 percent and had spurts of success against St. Louis' vaunted defense thanks to the speed of point guard Maalik Wayns (29 points) and the outside shooting of James Bell (16), yet the Wildcats still couldn't stay within striking distance of the Billikens. The reason is Villanova couldn't guard a St. Louis team that made up for a deficit in athleticism with deft passing, smart shot selection and a knack for not being careless with the ball.

Even with Mitchell having a quiet nine points on 3-for-9 shooting, the Billikens shot 51 percent from the field, committed just seven turnovers and sank 14 of 27 three-pointers. Sophomore guard Jordair Jett scored a team-high 19 points off the bench, but five other St. Louis players had at least eight points.

What do St. Louis players credit for their scoring efficiency? Well, the fact that they face better defense in practice doesn't hurt.

"Practice is harder than the games," Conklin said. "When Washington played zone against us last week, our (scout team) did a better job of playing zone against us than they did. They'll turn us over. They'll get up in us. Granted coach doesn't call fouls against them and they're allowed to do whatever they want, but it makes us better."

All that brings a smile to Majerus' face, which is no longer a rarity these days. He's proud of the fact that St. Louis is beginning to experience some of the success expected when it hired him to rebuild the program in 2007, yet he's also cautious because the calendar has not even turned to December.

"If people are excited now, it's the Kennedy thing where victory has a thousand fathers and defeat is an orphan," Majerus said. This is five games into the season, so I don't get too high or too low. I try to stay balanced."

Fair enough. But the joys of November 2011 for St. Louis sure have been more fun than the misery of the previous season.

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