Saint Louis has four starters back from a team that went 26-8, ended a 12-year NCAA tournament drought and is picked to finish second in the Atlantic 10.

There's one major void that'll be hard to fill.

The Billikens begin their bid for follow-up success Friday night in the opener against South Carolina-Upstate without the man who rebuilt the program. Interim coach Jim Crews will be guiding them instead of Rick Majerus, who took a leave of absence in August for health reasons and has not been in contact with the program.

"Were we surprised? Absolutely," Crews said Thursday. "Were we shocked? I'm not sure anyone was shocked, because Rick has had health problems for a long time and he's been very open about it.

"You connect the dots sometimes."

Crews' biggest early challenge will be filling in for his top returning starter and center. Point guard Kwamain Mitchell is out until probably January with a broken left foot, and starting center Cory Remekun is expected to miss a few weeks with a knee strain sustained in practice on Wednesday.

Mitchell averaged 12 points and led the team in assists and steals.

The 58-year-old Crews played on the undefeated Indiana national championship team in 1976 and has 24 years of head coaching experience at Evansville and Army. He had done some TV work since getting fired at West Point in 2009, and joined Majerus' staff last year thinking it would be a one-year commitment.

The two coaching styles are compatible, which has eased the transition. Crews is following Majerus' blueprint with a team that ended up one victory shy of the school record last season, emphasizing stout defense and controlling tempo.

Last season, the Billikens allowed just 57.6 points per game, eighth-lowest in the nation.

"From a defensive standpoint, we are 98 percent the same and I can't tell you the 2 percent we're different," Crews said. "From an offensive standpoint, big picture, we're the same, too, in terms of player movement, spacing, ball movement.

"These kids have invested in what Rick has done here."

Majerus' tactical skills were instrumental in Saint Louis' near upset of No. 1 seed Michigan State in the third round of the NCAA tournament last spring. Recalling the outpouring of emotion from Majerus and his players after the four-point loss leaves no doubt that they'll miss him just as much off the court.

"It's obviously a different season," forward Jake Barnett said. "Coach and Kwamain are big losses for us, but at the same time we have a really good team and a great group of guys.

"Guys will have increased roles, guys will have to step up, and I feel like I can be one of those guys who can step up."

Crews inherits a typical Majerus far-flung roster that includes players from New Zealand, Australia and Canada, with the closest hometown going to freshman Jared Drew of Indianapolis. Forward Cody Ellis, who hails from Perth, Australia, is the team's best 3-point threat and 6-11 center Rob Loe of Auckland, New Zealand, also likes to shoot from long range.

Saint Louis received 10 first-place votes in the preseason A-10 poll, one fewer than first-place pick Saint Joseph's, and is among the top of the list of schools also receiving votes in the Top 25. Last season, the Billikens cracked the Top 25 for the first time since 1993-94.

After saying he didn't pay attention to rankings, guard Mike McCall Jr. added, "I think we should be No. 1" in the A-10.

"Everybody thinks we can be a very good team," McCall added. "I mean, a team better than last year's team. We're making strides every day and we've just got to keep at it."

Junior forward Dwayne Evans has double-double potential most nights, and led the team in rebounding the last two seasons. Ellis, a senior, averaged 10.1 points off the bench while getting starter minutes last season. Guard Jordair Jett was picked to the conference's all-defense team and McCall averaged seven points while starting 13 games.

Majerus' recruiting class features guard Keith Carter, who figures to be among the top reserves. Carter was a first-team all-stater in Illinois, helping Proviso East to a runner-up finish in the Class 4A championship while averaging more than 20 points and five assists.

Sophomore center John Manning gives the Billikens a second 6-11 player inside.

The opening opponent is no soft touch. South Carolina-Upstate was 21-13 last season and played in the CollegeInsider.com Tournament and feature Atlantic-Sun player of the year Torrey Craig, a forward who averaged 16 points and nearly eight rebounds last season.