Saint Louis is the Conference USA program that hardly ever belongs. Any preseason discussion of C-USA favorites -- practically every year, you can take Cincinnati, Louisville and Memphis to the bank in that debate -- will invariably list the Billikens somewhere near the middle.
Not awful. But not good enough, either. Season after season after season. By now, shouldn't everyone have learned their lesson? Saint Louis was 9-7 in C-USA play last season, the fourth consecutive season in which it was .500 or better in league play. And the Billikens look primed for another successful season. They should be more formidable on the boards, more athletic defensively and quicker. Don't look for an emphasis on up-tempo or deliberate styles, Saint Louis can play either way.
FRONTCOURTThe Billikens could really be something special if center Tom Frericks continues to progress. Frericks led the team in rebounding, despite playing 20 minutes per game. His biggest issues are staying healthy and staying out of foul trouble. Frericks had some early season conditioning problems resulting from asthma, and he also missed seven games with a mild shoulder separation.
Where's the rebounding support? The Billikens are hopeful that Vas'shun Newborne, a junior college transfer, is up to the task. Newborne can play at power forward or on the wing. Either way, Soderberg predicts aggressive rebounding and tenacious defensive play. "We became immediately better by adding him to our program," Soderberg said.
Soderberg remains intrigued with the potential of senior forward Izik Ohanon, a 24-year-old native of Israel. Ohanon, at 6-foot-9, is not an overwhelming rebounder, but rather relies on a finesse-style game. The payoff is Ohanon's assortment of moves away from the basket. He needs to add consistency on both ends of the floor.
"Izik may have been too introspective in the past," Soderberg said. "He needs to just play and let his game take over."
An enhanced role for sophomore Ian Vouyoukas would be welcomed. Vouyoukas' first season was somewhat thwarted by a 10-game suspension levied by the NCAA because he played with professionals on a club team in his native Greece.
BACKCOURTIn his first year in the program, Reggie Bryant was everything Soderberg could have imagined. Bryant, a transfer from Villanova, quickly became the team's offensive leader, a dependable free-throw shooter and the on-floor catalyst. An excellent long-range shooter, Bryant sometimes gets careless with the ball and struggles with his shot selection.
The Billikens likely will put their offense in the hands of freshman point guard Dwayne Polk, a hometown hero from Vashon High School in St. Louis. "A point guard in the truest sense of the word," Soderberg said. "He's very dependable, an excellent floor general."
No one else on the roster possesses Polk's point guard pedigree, so the Billikens hope they won't need to employ a backup plan. Elsewhere, the backcourt looks deep and versatile.
Anthony Drejaj, who has had some magical moments in March, returns for his junior season. Freshman Luke Meyer also has a reputation for instant offense. Sophomore Antwan Alexander, a transfer from Wabash Valley (Ill.) Junior College, looks like more of a finished product. Alexander, a leaper with outstanding on-ball defensive ability, will show up all over the box score.
FINAL ANALYSISInside? There's Frericks. The Billikens need more minutes and more production. Outside? There's Bryant. The Billikens need the refinement of a finished product. Two nice players. Two solid characteristics that don't exist on many other teams.
If the supporting cast comes through, the Billikens should be fine. But that's the question. At key positions, they are relying on improvement, potential and freshmen. If any of the plans go awry, there could be problems.
Saint Louis, coming off two consecutive appearances in the NIT, must add some offensive punch to complement its always-tenacious defense. On paper, the Billikens look like a postseason team. The NCAAs? That might be a reach. But Saint Louis has proved pundits wrong before.