Saint Louis finds success after devastating loss of coach Rick Majerus
The day after Rick Majerus died, he reappeared, as four words materialized on an oversized dry erase board in the Saint Louis basketball locker room. It was game day. On game day, a coach never sparing with colorful, side-winding chatter refined his message to something pure and categorical. To win: defend, rebound. Four words, six syllables. That was what Majerus wrote for his team, every time. That was all his team needed to know.
That message had appeared before every game played previously, too, even if Majerus did not. On the night of the season opener, the Billikens knew a medical sabbatical would keep their coach from them, and likely well beyond. So senior Cody Ellis stared at a vacant white space by the game plan. He located a marker and became a ghost writer. To win, he wrote, underlining it twice. Below that: defend. Below that: rebound. Four familiar words and six well-worn syllables resurrected, all his team needed to know.
"The white board looked a little empty, because I was so used to seeing that little credo there," Ellis said. "It helps to get the boys' mindset that little extra edge. It helps remind us that coach is still a part of this team, to do what he taught us."
It will appear again before a game against St. Joseph's on Wednesday, but not entirely as tribute to the man who started them on the path to a No. 18 ranking and the top of the Atlantic 10 standings. Over time, it has become a reminder of what the Billikens owe themselves. They absorbed real-life loss and injuries and an early January swoon before resolving to prove, again, that they were good. They have won nine straight since with selflessness and grit and attention to detail, including two percussive statements against VCU and Butler.
So they are good, and they are good because they generally keep things as simple as a pregame bromide scribbled on a board, and they keep on moving on. "We all kind of want to know what's going to happen in the future," interim coach Jim Crews said. "It's never as clear as we would probably like it sometimes, or want it to be. Life takes funny twists. We just try to do the next right thing. Even if you don't understand what's going on, you just try to do the next right thing. That's just kind of how we operate."
In practice, this is actually as vague and malleable as it is in theory. Most specifically, Saint Louis guards you, ranking just outside the top 25 in adjusted defensive efficiency. But only three Billikens average double-digit scoring, led by Dwayne Evans' modest 12 points per game. All nine players who participated in a taut 65-61 win at Butler on Friday average at least 13 minutes a night, but Evans' team-best offensive rating of 112.3 ranks 356th nationally. The Billikens appear to be unspectacular, but somehow they are for real.
The difficulty in identifying certainties for this team may be the entire point. Ellis averages 11 points per game. He scored zero at Butler. Meanwhile Kwamain Mitchell, just 15 games into his season after foot surgery in October, snapped a streak of four outings in single digits with a 12-point contribution. Fitting that the Billikens bounded to the visitors' locker room at Hinkle Fieldhouse shouting, That's what we can do, this is what we can do.
"Not to be too cliché, but we are really just kind of one team," Evans said. "We don't have any selfish guys. All the scoring is spread around. We play defense as a team. Obviously there have been some heated exchanges in practice, but for the most part, we just play together. It's been growing over the years, honestly, and this year is just the culmination of that. After facing so much adversity early on in the season, it's kind of propelled us even farther."
The unlikely overseer of it all had finished another day of coaching sixth-grade girls and third- and first-grade boys at his friend's basketball academy when Majerus called in October 2011, in a bind. Crews spent 24 seasons as a head coach before Army fired him at the end of 2008-09. He and Majerus had become friends, though, and Saint Louis assistant Alex Jensen bolted for the NBA developmental league. Just one season, was Majerus' selling point. Four and a half months. Crews had 24 hours to decide.
"Oh, I'm not sure if I even wanted a chance, to tell you the truth," Crews said. "Hey, I was in the business for 30-something years. How lucky had I been, anyway? I wasn't looking to get in, I wasn't desiring to get in. I was perfectly content."
He got back in. Then after a 26-win season ended in a second-round loss to Michigan State in the NCAA tournament, Majerus pulled his assistants into a small anteroom and gave heartfelt thanks for their efforts. "He made us feel like a million dollars," Crews said. "We were all very, very moved by what he said. It certainly sounded like it was over."
It wasn't, not quite. Majerus officially went on medical sabbatical in August and in November the school announced he would not coach again. Athletic director Chris May handed the team to a man he'd met a little more than a year earlier, and who took the interim job on a handshake and a condition: that the season was about affording the players every resource they needed.
Crews told the team why he took the job. He told his group they might not like everything he'd say, but that he'd say it to make them better. Then he more or less changed nothing, learning as much as teaching, asking the players how certain sets worked best. Off the Billikens went, empowered to make the season whatever they wanted to make it.
"It's kind of like you're starting to date someone for the first time that you need to get to know in a hurry, and they need to get to know you, because you're moving forward into this long season," guard Jake Barnett said. "Coach Crews did a good job of explaining it, saying it's about you guys -- your team, your season, your future. When he put it like that, it makes us say, he's about us, he's about the team, why not play for him if he wants to see us succeed? Why not essentially get married?"
It's a fair question for May. What Majerus began to build, Crews has reinforced. Thanks to the revitalized program and 10,600-seat Chaifetz Arena, the school may have a higher-profile future to mull should the basketball schools vacating the Big East make contact regarding their new league. (Rest assured Saint Louis would take the call.) Stability and profitability and profile are realignment catnip.
Still, any discussion about removing the interim title will occur after the season.
"What I can tell you is Jim Crews is doing a great job with this team," May said. "I couldn't be more proud and happy with the job he's doing. I think he's done as good a job as anybody could do in this circumstance. I am a very big Jim Crews fan."
It's also fair to question who will do the selling. "I'm going to be happy next year, no matter what," Crews said. "This is maybe a stupid analogy, but you get hired to paint a house, OK? Well, I got hired for this season. I didn't get hired to paint the neighborhood. I got hired to try to help these young guys through this season. Nothing more, nothing less. I've been treated honestly, I've been treated fairly, I've been treated very, very supportively in every regard. It's about helping these young guys. Seasons are tough enough. When you get these real-life things that happen, it makes it a little bit more difficult for these young people."
In late November, one longtime Majerus friend spoke with the ailing coach for the last time and sensed an abiding love for the team he built as well as a tinge of regret that he wouldn't see things through. Evans, the Billikens' leading scorer, remembers Majerus "chomping at the bit to get back after it" during the summer, suggesting ways every player could improve.
Months later they listened to Majerus' friends and family celebrate his life at a funeral in Milwaukee. Players say they then found some peace, maybe a way to process the unimaginable. They never aimed to finish what Majerus started, in his name. Crews, for one, didn't see the logic: If Saint Louis played poorly, did that mean they loved Majerus any less?
So the Billikens came together for their own sake. They reach back every time they see Majerus' words scribbled on a board, and every time it helps them move a little farther along. "I wouldn't say it's a rallying point at all, but I don't think there's been a day where Rick Majerus hasn't been brought up in the locker room or at practice," Evans said. "It's hard to separate the two. Anything we say basketball term-wise is something he told us and preached to us for a couple years. It just resonates throughout the entire team. I don't know if it's inspirational -- it's just there. It's just instilled in you."
Truthfully, Saint Louis had everything to compete at this level, this year, except its coach. Then it found it could honor the man who was everything by moving on to everything else. To explain how a team does this, Crews recalled walking out of his mother's funeral 15 years ago to find a man mowing his lawn next door.
You've got to be kidding me, Crews thought. How disrespectful is that? As the procession made its way down the street, Crews reconsidered. There was probably a funeral every day at that church, he figured. In other words: When is that guy going to mow the grass?
"That's kind of life," Crews said. "As sad as I was about my mother passing away, you know, the guy is still mowing the grass. Life goes on. It just does. Now, is it sad? Yes. But life has to go on."
Brian Hamilton is a reporter for the Chicago Tribune. Follow him on Twitter at @ChiTribHamilton.