PG: Mike McCall Jr. (Jr)/Kwamain Mitchell (Sr)/Keith Carter (Fr)
Gone: F-Brian Conklin, SG-Kyle Cassity
With Rick Majerus having to step down due to health concerns and the injury to starting point guard Kwamain Mitchell, the season has gotten off to an auspicious start for a St. Louis Billikens team that is expected to contend for the Atlantic 10 title. How the Billikens are able to overcome those two obstacles will be the determining factor when the dust settles in March.
Majerus has faced health concerns in the past and won't roam the sidelines this year due to heart issues. Assistant Jim Crews takes over on an interim basis and does bring some head coaching experience to the table having been the lead man at Army and Evansville for a combined 24 years. Still, you can't help but wonder how Majerus' absence will affect the Billikens.
Making matters worst, the coach on the floor and team's top returning scorer, Kwamain Mitchell, underwent surgery to fix a fracture in his foot earlier this week. He is expected to be in a walking boot for six weeks and when you factor in recovery time, might not return until conference play tips off.
With Mitchell sidelined, the point guard responsibilities will fall into the hands of either Mike McCall or Jordair Jett. Both guys are capable of filling in but are best suited playing off the ball. Neither possess the play-making abilities nor the defensive tenacity of Mitchell, but must hold down the fort for the first couple of months. Freshman Keith Carter likely gets thrust into the rotation right away as well to provide some needed backcourt depth.
The frontcourt also has to replace leading scorer Brian Conklin. Starting power forward Cody Ellis is back, and his ability to stretch defenses with his shooting is his strongest asset. Key reserve Rob Loe will likely step in the starting five while John Manning adds another big body to play behind Loe. Cory Remekum should see a larger role off the bench as could seldom used sophomore Grandy Glaze, who provides the Billikens with an undersized but physical, rebounding presence.
Speaking of undersized, 6-5 swingman Dwayne Evans returns as the team's top rebounder. He will need to increase his scoring load early in the season to help offset the losses of Conklin and Mitchell. Three-point specialist Jake Barnett and lengthy freshman Jared Drew are also options on the wing.
I expect this to be one of the most competitive seasons the Atlantic 10 has ever seen. St. Louis has a chance to cut down the nets and earn a trip to the NCAA Tournament if Mitchell is able to regain form in time for a March push, but St. Joseph's, UMass, Butler, VCU will all be in the mix as well, and I didn't even include typical conference powers Temple or Xavier on that list. Due to the loss of Mitchell and uncertain timetable of his return, I have to bump St. Louis down this low (just to give you an idea, I had them in the top-30 prior to the Majerus and Mitchell news.) Once Mitchell returns though, expect the Billikens to be a top-25 caliber team and dangerous opponent down the final stretch of the season.
Player to Watch: Dwayne Evans, SF
The Billikens will be a grind-it-out, defensive club until Mitchell returns since they lack a whole lot of offensive firepower. Somebody has to step into the go-to role on the offensive end, and Evans or Ellis seem the most capable of filling that void. Since Ellis is a fairly one-dimensional player, Evans' versatility will allow him to be a more well-rounded threat.