ST. LOUIS — Jim Crews is confident his players would do just fine in a classroom because they could always double back to exam questions that stymied them.
As the third-year Saint Louis coach points out, there’s no such rewind option on the court to smooth out the bumps in the team’s total rebuild.
“You don’t have an opportunity to say, ‘I don’t have answer 3 so I’m going to go back to it after I answer the next 20 questions,'” Crews said.
This time last year, the Billikens were in the midst of a school-record 19-game winning streak and driving toward their second consecutive Atlantic-10 Conference title. They were on the short list of non-power conference teams given a shot at a deep run in their school-record third consecutive NCAA tournament appearance.
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This season, they’re 8-7. It’s the natural consequence of replacing all five starters and having more than a half-dozen freshmen in the mix.
Freshmen who need time to develop are getting schooled in the meantime.
“This is not a league of one-and-done players like Kentucky or Kansas,” Rhode Island coach Danny Hurley said after his team pulled away in the second half in the A-10 opener at St. Louis. “Obviously they had veteran players that went through the process these kids are going through. It’s going to take a little bit of time for them to get back to that level.”
Sometimes, the young Billikens get it all right. Other times, they forget to block out or screen or blow bonus opportunities. So it’s back to the analogy board for Crews.
“Everything’s a domino effect,” Crews said. “I don’t know anything about football, but if it’s play-action the quarterback really needs to sell the play-action and the halfback coming through, he’s got to really sell it.”
Saint Louis just missed an upset bid on Tuesday, shooting 59 percent in the first half and taking an eight-point lead at George Washington. Season bests from freshmen Milik Yarbrough and Davell Roby, who had 26 and 14 points, couldn’t quite prevent an 0-2 start in conference play.
A light pre-conference schedule was probably a good idea but it’s done nothing for an RPI well below 200, with losses to Texas A&M Corpus Christi and South Dakota State.
A season-worst 21 turnovers was pivotal against Rhode Island.
“Take a bad shot, that’s not good, but at least it might go in once,” Crews said. “We’re not encouraging bad shots, but if you turn it over, that’s zero interest on your money.”
Only two players with much experience are back from last season and only one of them is healthy, junior guard Austin McBroom. Senior forward Grandy Glaze will likely miss the entire season with a shoulder injury.
The 6-foot-6 Yarbrough averaged 26 points at Zion-Benton Township High in suburban Chicago as a senior and has picked it up lately. McBroom and fellow junior guard Ash Yacoubou, a Villanova transfer, have been leaders much of the season.
Crews keeps searching for combinations. He’s used five lineups and is digging deeper into his bench than most coaches would prefer.
“Whatever names they are, they might be different names the next game or two games from now,” Crews said. “That’s my guess. Could be wrong, but that’s my guess.”
Opponents aren’t counting on the tough times lasting forever.
“It can be frustrating at times but you can see the flashes that these young kids have,” Rhode Island’s Hurley said. “We’re not exactly excited to see them when they come to us later in the year.”