ST. LOUIS (AP) — Beating a pair of Top 25 schools last week put Saint Louis back on the national map. Rather than lobby to have his interim label removed, coach Jim Crews is reveling in the moment.
There’s been no drop in production from the team assembled by the late Rick Majerus that ended the school’s 12-year NCAA tournament drought last spring and is poised for a repeat bid. Atop the Atlantic 10 after knocking off VCU and Butler last week, the No. 18 Billikens are ranked for the first time this season and have won nine in a row heading into Wednesday night’s game against Saint Joseph’s.
“I don’t know if there’s a better feeling right now,” junior forward Dwayne Evans said. “It’s a real exciting time. You can tell spirits are so much higher in practice.”
The 58-year-old Crews, whose last taste of Division I head coaching was getting fired at Army three weeks before fall practices began in 2009, has kept the program humming. No matter how successful this season ends, he’s under no illusion he’ll be on the bench next season.
“Coaching has been very, very good to me,” Crews said in an interview with The Associated Press. “I’ve been out of coaching the last couple years and you know what, I’ve loved that, too. My job and my commitment is to the players to help out under a difficult situation. The future is never as clear as we all seem to think its’ going to be.”
The school is in no hurry to clarify matters, either. It has nothing to do with Crews’ middling 375-353 record over 25 seasons.
“We’ve all totally committed to do whatever we can to help this group right now,” athletic director Chris May said. “We’ve all agreed as soon as the season’s over, we’ll sit down and talk about the future.”
Saint Louis (21-5, 10-2) is 4-1 against Top 25 teams this season, the most ever for the school. The biggest was a rout of No. 9 Butler last month that finished with fans mobbing the court. The Billikens beat the Bulldogs again at Indianapolis last week, this time knocking off No. 15.
“The kids have certainly had a lot of things thrown at them, including real life stuff,” Crews said. “They’ve done a tremendous job of sticking together and it’s certainly has been enjoyable. I had no idea which direction it was going to go, we try to keep it pretty simple around here.”
Evans leads the team in scoring and rebounding, and is averaging 17 points during the winning streak. Junior guard Jordair Jett is averaging 12 points during the run, and is among six players averaging seven or more points.
Just like under Majerus, who died in December after being hospitalized for several months, the Billikens have one of the stingiest defenses in the country, with opponents averaging 57 points. VCU didn’t reach double figures until 4:08 to go in the first half, Richmond totaled 10 baskets and 46 points, and Butler had 23 turnovers in the first meeting, that school’s highest total in nine seasons.
Majerus’ methods, proven though sometimes unorthodox, have stuck with a team that features eight juniors and seniors.
“Nothing that coach says, you’ll never forget it,” Evans said. “We talk about that every day. Just little things that make you remember.”
Then again, Crews has been in charge since late August. So this is his show, and the man who played on Indiana’s unbeaten title team in 1976, led mid-major Evansville to four NCAA appearances and didn’t field a winner in seven seasons at a service academy with a long history of losing is putting all that experience on the table.
Crews has no complaints about the way it ended at his last stop, reportedly over yelling at a cadet, remembering the positives from his tenure at Army.
“I absolutely loved it,” he said. “Rarely does coaching end in a fashion that’s very pleasing. I learned that a long time ago.”
Saint Louis cracked the Top 25 for the first time since 1993-94 early last season, then beat Memphis and took seed Michigan State to the limit in the NCAA tournament. The Billikens were picked to finish second in the A-10 this season, but had to grind their way back into the poll after losses to Santa Clara and Rhode Island.
The Chaifetz Arena has been at or near capacity four times this season and the final two home games are close to sellouts, too.
“I think he’s done as excellent a job as anybody could,” May said of Crews. “It’s been a special run, no question, and I couldn’t be more thrilled.”
Crews’ opening discussion with players centered on accountability and he gets high marks from the administration for communicating teaching points on and off the court, using a blend of the past with his own ideas. Three seniors, guard Kwamain Mitchell and sixth man Cody Ellis and backup forward Cory Remeken, are on track to graduate soon.
“Winning’s more fun, period,” Crews said. “The main thing is what type of program you’ve got, and I couldn’t be more proud of these guys.”
There’s so much experience, Crews said, it’s a team that doesn’t need an appointed leader.
“Coach Crews, he’s got his wrinkles, his own style of coaching,” Evans said. “So it’s a good mesh. He’s handled the ship perfectly.”
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