BROOKLYN, N.Y. -- Saint Louis has gone through plenty of transformations this season. After coach Rick Majerus died in early December, the Billikens went on a hot streak. After that hot streak turned into an Atlantic 10 regular-season championship, they became a great story.
Now, they're just a team that no one wants to face in the NCAA tournament.
“They have depth. They have physicality. They have toughness,” Butler coach Brad Stevens said. “They're the strongest team we've played against all year. They're men.
“You've gotta have some stuff to you if you're going to do that for 40 minutes.”
Stevens would know, as his Bulldogs on Saturday afternoon lost to Saint Louis for the third time this season, the Billikens pulling away late for a 67-56 win to advance to the conference title game.
And that first sentence is what makes Saint Louis such a dangerous opponent in the big dance. Butler, one of the most well-prepared teams in the country, lost to Saint Louis on three separate occasions. The Bulldogs scouted them three different times and were able to prepare for the Billikens several times.
In the NCAA tournament, Saint Louis is going to face a team that it hasn't seen this year, a team that will have as little as 36 hours to prepare for the Billikens.
“Sometimes, if you don't know what you're doing, and you don't turn the ball over and you don't take bad shots, they don't know what you're doing, either,” coach Jim Crews said of why his team his difficult to scout.
Saint Louis is well-disciplined, and it doesn't make unforced errors. The Billikens don't commit unnecessary fouls, and they take care of the ball. Moreover, they scout opponents tremendously well, using their strength to force teams out of their usual offensive sets.
They have a ton of experience, with three seniors and five juniors among their top nine players in the rotation. Guys like Cody Ellis and Kwamain Mitchell have been to the NCAA tournament before, and they've gone through plenty of adversity.
That type of veteran leadership means it's tough to catch the Billikens sleeping and unprepared.
“Coach always stresses that it's a 40-minute game, 15 rebounds,” Ellis said. “You can't want it in the first 10-15 minutes of the game.”
“We have a lot of experienced guys,” junior Dwayne Evans added. “We know when teams are going on runs and we're not hitting shots, the lull isn't going to last.”
While it might not be the most explosive or athletic of teams, Saint Louis has all the pieces to win multiple games in the NCAA tournament. Evans is a nightmare to play against in the paint, and Ellis creates matchup problems with his ability to knock down shots. Mitchell is a terrific point guard, and Mike McCall and Jordair Jett are aggressive in the backcourt.
Most importantly, they're all unselfish and play together.
“Somebody who hasn't played against them next week, they're going to say, ‘Uh, oh,'” Stevens said earlier this week.
So what you've got is a team that doesn't turn the ball over or make mistakes, a team that guards as well as anyone in the country, a team filled with veterans -- and one that has lost a grand total of three games since the end of November.
Oh, and you might have fewer than two days to prepare a game plan to beat them.
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