At the conclusion of the 2006-07 basketball season, and a 20-win campaign at that, Saint Louis University decided its men's basketball program needed to reach even higher. Head coach Brad Soderberg was dismissed. Ten days later, Rick Majerus was brought on board. And just like that the program broadened its credibility, no small matter with a new 10,600-seat campus arena set to open the following season.
It was a move accompanied by some controversy. Doubtless Majerus was a big name with a glowing history, having never suffered a losing season in his travels from Marquette to Ball State to Utah, where he built a program of national prominence in his 15 years at the school. But Majerus is also a big man, an exceedingly big man, one made to retire because of health problem 20 games in Utah's 2003-04 season. When he re-emerged from the broadcasting world to take the Saint Louis job, there was, quite naturally, widespread concern over how long he would last.
So far, so good. Majerus is nearing the completion of his second season and the Billikens have the Atlantic 10 elite on high alert. Six wins in the last seven games, including conquests of Saint Joseph's and theretofore A-10 leader Dayton, have elevated Saint Louis to 17-10 overall, 8-5 in conference and painted it as a team to fear come A-10 Tournament time.
"Saint Louis right now is playing as good as anyone in the league, maybe better," Dayton coach Brian Gregory said after Saturday's loss. "To be honest, for our league, it's great to see. I have a tremendous amount of respect for Coach Majerus. To see his team grow has been kind of fun."
Majerus demurred on Monday's A-10 conference call, saying "I'm the consummate one-game-at-a-time guy. We've been playing well. It's nice of him to say that."
Defense has become the calling card of Saint Louis, which hits the Reilly Center at 7 tonight to face St. Bonaventure (Radio 1300 AM). The question is whether the Billikens, who held Dayton to 49 points, can muster the same resolve away from Chaifetz Arena. They're just 2-7 on the road and up against a Bona team (13-13, 4-9) yearning for its home floor after playing three of its last four on the road.
"We need some home cooking," Bonnies coach Mark Schmidt said. "They're playing really, really well. Great defensive team. We got our hands full. But we have to go home and regroup and try to shore up some things from a defensive standpoint. We've been really good defensively and rebounding the ball and in the last two games we haven't done that."
Bona rose from the depths last season to manhandle the Billikens by 20 in St. Louis. If the Bonnies sprung a surprise last season, they won't be underestimated this time around.
"Last year they beat us and they really beat us soundly," Majerus said. "They're very well coached and they play really hard. My guess would be the young man in the middle, No. 44 [freshman Andrew Nicholson], would be the Rookie of the Year in the league. He's an outstanding talent and they're a well-balanced team. They've been right there in a lot of games.
"And last year, I got to tell you the truth, Senior Night, they had only won two or perhaps three games prior to that, and you couldn't tell if they had won three or lost three all year, they played with such great enthusiasm, energy and effort. I expect that same thing this year, and they're a much better team, quite frankly."
Meanwhile, the St. Bonaventure women's team (19-8, 8-4 Atlantic 10) looks to snap a two-game losing streak when it visits Saint Louis (11-16, 5-7) at 8 p.m.
In other women's action, a nationally ranked foe will visit Alumni Arena as No. 25 Bowling Green (23-2, 12-0 Mid-American Conference) takes on the University at Buffalo (5-20, 1-11) at 7 p.m.