Unfulfilled Potential – SLU, MIZZOU & ILLINI
(Indianapolis, IN) – The three largest Division 1 basketball programs in the two-state area share a similar story. All three felt they had a shot at greatness and all three fell short. Teams with some individual stars and rising coaches in leagues that were in transition had a great opportunity to make some national impact and all three failed.
As I sit here at Lucas Oil Stadium, the scene of the Midwest Regional, you begin to wonder ‘what went wrong?’ for each of these programs.
Missouri, filled with transfer star power were a pre-season top 25 team. So was Saint Louis University, but they were filled with senior leadership and a coach coming off a national coach of the year award. Illinois was a little less known, but with Indiana, Purdue destined to have down years, the Rayvonte Rice led Illini had an open stair case to the upper level of the Big Ten.
Mizzou is probably the biggest disappointment in this regard. With several NBA potential players on the roster, the Tigers expected to do damage in what was believed to be weakened Southeastern Conference. Wrong on both counts. M-U struggled and the SEC was pretty good. The SEC has gone 7 and 0 in the NCAA tournament and two league members are here in Indianapolis.
John Clarkson, Jabari Brown and Earnest Ross all seemed to be players that any team in the nation would love to have as their ‘go to guy’ but despite some spectacular individual performances, Frank Haith’s team never seemed to jell. Haith has accumulated 71 victories in three seasons in Boone County, but his critics are many and his ability to recruit and inability to run deep in the post season are equally confounding to those that watch Mizzou.
Saint Louis U had a chance to do some great things. Head Coach Jim Crews’ senior filled line up played great defense, gritty and efficient offense and followed the lead of great character guys in Dwayne Evans and Jordair Jett. They would win 19 games in a row and steam rolled their way through the Atlantic Ten Conference until fatigue, a short bench and offensive and rebounding weaknesses were exposed. The Billikens won just two of their final seven games.
Jett was an inspirational leader and a maker of big shots. He was an all league performer. Late in the season the Billikens, relying on too few players looked tired, slow and one step short.
Illinois showed flashes. A big win against Missouri and another at Michigan State showed the flashes of what the Illini were capable of. But in the end, John Groce’s team was just too short.
Physically and figuratively. Despite Rice’s strong season and big shots hit by John Ekey (they both transferred in from Missouri Valley schools) and the promise of Tracy Abrams, they were weak on the boards and seemed to be weak in clutch situations. Their eight game mid-season losing streak destroyed any real confidence being held on to by the Blue and Orange fans.
SLU is watching fellow A-10 member Dayton do great things. Missouri is watching two SEC schools compete at the highest levels and Illinois just has to look at a Spartans team they defeated to realize how close they could be.
What the schools here in Indy have and our regional teams seem to lack is a consistent program. Kentucky, Louisville, Tennessee, Michigan and most of the teams in the other Regional Playoffs all have a pedigree, an identity, a plan. They recruit players that fit their plan. They build from one season to the next.
Mizzou, SLU and Illinois can get there, and I’m not suggesting they don’t have their own plans in place. Working those plans, deepening the talent base and growing an identity is what must come next.