Rick Majerus liked to see his players grow both on and off the court. The 2012-13 Saint Louis Billikens men's basketball team would have had their former coach glowing with pride if he were able to see what they've accomplished.
Saint Louis (20-5) has risen to the top of the Atlantic 10 standings and quickly developed into one of the most feared teams in the NCAA. The journey to the top has been anything but a smooth ride.
The Billikens faced adversity before their season even began. On Aug. 24, Saint Louis issued a press release stating the legendary Rick Majerus would miss the entire 2012-13 season because of heart issues.
With Jim Crews stepping in to guide the squad on an interim basis, Saint Louis got off to a 3-3 start. The came the devastating news that the loveable Majerus had passed away on Dec. 1.
The Billikens, who went to the third round of the 2012 NCAA Tournament under Majerus's watch, honored the coaching tactician the next night with a 62-49 victory over defending Horizon League champion Valparaiso. They continued the momentum with a 67-63 win over North Texas three days later before attending the memorial service to remember their head coach.
The senior trio of Kwamain Mitchell, Cody Ellis and Cory Remekun all spoke at the ceremony, each sharing touching stories about the greatness of Majerus not only as a coach, but as a man.
The principles of the long-time head coach were clearly not lost in translation. Saint Louis began to flash passion on the hardwood as it made its way through the campaign.
Since Majerus' passing, the Billikens are 17-2, including double-digit decisions over three ranked opponents in New Mexico, Butler and Virginia Commonwealth. The success has come through a very balanced effort.
The Billikens returned four of five starters from the unit that downed Memphis in the Big Dance in 2012, although the lone loss was Brian Conklin, the team's leading scorer.
Junior forward Dwayne Evans is the new leader of Saint Louis with 11.8 points and 6.9 rebounds per game. The most alarming aspect of the team's excellent campaign for opponents is a few of its key players have not performed up to their full potential, at least not yet.
Ellis, a 6-foot-8 Australian native, is posting 11.4 ppg despite shooting a career-low 37 percent from the floor. He has heated up to connect on 46.3 percent of his field goal tries over the past four games to make the team even more dangerous.
Mitchell is averaging a career-low 8.7 ppg after tallying 1,321 points in his first three seasons with the program. Junior guard Mike McCall Jr. is chipping in 10 ppg, but, like Ellis, also is converting a career-low 41.9 percent of his attempts from the floor.
Jordair Jett has managed to exceed expectations in 2012-13 to make a big-time impact. The 6-foot-1 guard provides a big spark off the bench on both ends of the floor. He seemed unstoppable when the Billikens squared off with then- No. 9 Butler at Chaifetz Arena on Jan. 31, racking up 19 points in 23 minutes.
Jett has scored in double-figures in all but one game since and repeated history with a strong showing versus a ranked foe on Tuesday as he scored 12 consecutive points during a key stretch in the second half against VCU.
The real key to the Billikens' success was apparent versus the Rams. Defensively, they are near the top of the rankings among Division I programs with only 57.9 points allowed per game despite playing in the highly competitive Atlantic 10. They held VCU 16 points shy of its scoring average and gave the Rams their largest margin of defeat of the 2012-13 season.
The Billikens dominated Butler in a very similar fashion. "I absolutely loved the way they moved the ball," Butler coach Brad Stevens said after the contest. "It was an absolute joy to watch one team play. The problem was, it wasn't the team I coached."
Dr. Richard A. Chaifetz was in attendance for the monumental win over the Bulldogs. The SLU alum and namesake of the school's basketball arena expressed his thoughts after the victory. "That was the best game I've seen played all year and probably the best since I've been watching Saint Louis," he said. "Our defense is the best I've seen in the Atlantic 10 this year. If we play like this, nobody can beat us."
Crews has not received enough credit for keeping the team intact through a tough time and guiding it to first place in the conference standings. The 59- year-old was a member of the 1976 Indiana NCAA Championship team that is still Division I's last undefeated champion.
He also had NCAA Tournament experience as a coach after taking Evansville to the Big Dance four times. He was unsure if he would ever return to coaching after being fired by Army two seasons ago. He decided to return to assist Majerus before being thrust into the limelight by the unfortunate events
While many are calling for the interim label to be removed from Crews's title, he is deflecting questions about it to keep the program focused.
The next obstacle for the Billikens is a grudge match with Stevens and Butler on Friday. First place in the league standings will be on the line as SLU tries to become just the second team to defeat Butler in its arena.
Saint Louis has a tough slate after Butler as well, with Saint Joseph's, George Washington, Xavier and La Salle remaining on its schedule. The Billikens' eight-game winning streak will be very difficult to maintain through the conclusion of the Atlantic 10 tournament, but their resume for March Madness is going to be hard to deny.
Majerus managed to build an unlikely national runner-up out of the Utes while at Utah. He quietly laid the foundation down at SLU before his health forced his departure from the sport.
Crews and the Billikens have embraced the philosophies of their former leader and showed continued growth as a unit during the coarse of the season. With a very unselfish approach to offense and a fierce defensive prowess, this team has what it takes to make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament.