Ford’s seventh season at SLU needs to become banner year for Billikens basketball

There’s plenty of room up there in the rafters at Chaifetz Arena.

What about over the north sideline, hovering near section 205?

Here you can find the first two Billikens basketball banners from the Travis Ford era. A lone trip to the NCAA tournament in 2019. An Atlantic 10 tournament championship that made it possible.

This is. This is all.

Time for a new one. A bigger one. Season seven should be a banner year for the Ford team, and it should be.

Ford won’t shout it from the Midtown rooftops, but he knows what we know. This has to be his best team. The evidence was also evident in Monday night’s exhibition against UMSL coach Bob Sundvold’s tenacious Tritons, which SLU won 81-58.

The Billikens are loaded with talent, loaded with experience and driven by a desire to be better than just good.

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Great teams have great guards. They have seasoned starters. They can get to the basket and shoot well from the outside. They retreat and defend with intensity. They’re fueled not by preseason accolades — SLU was picked second in the Atlantic 10, behind Dayton — but by a determination to make true the kind of statement this group wears on the back of its new warmup jerseys: “The journey is the reward. “

We’ll see where this ride goes, but make no mistake. The Ford team has the parts to go places. Need more proof? How about this excerpt from the sports bible, Chris Dortch’s Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook.

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“It’s hard to look at this team and not see big things,” the publication said. “Saint Louis is deep, experienced and talented. That’s a pretty good combination.”

Point guard Yuri Collins on Monday was rightfully named to the Bob Cousy Award watch list, along with other candidates, for the nation’s top point guard honor. If he cuts down on some of his turnovers, he can win it. Credit goes to supporters of SLU athletics for the name, image and likeness play to keep Collins here. Tennessee came up short last season. He stayed. The investment will pay dividends.

Javonte Perkins didn’t play Monday as there’s no reason to rush this ankle injury he’s dealing with, but he’s back from last year’s season-ending knee injury that turned the team’s head Ford’s sixth on the sad side of the NCAA Tournament bubble. Perkins no longer has to lead the team every night. His team got better as he got better. He just has to contribute and he will.

Like experienced guard Fred Thatch, big man Francis Okoro improved as last season progressed. Okoro quietly produced double-doubles in five of the Billikens’ final eight games last season despite the two teams he claimed.

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Gibson Jimerson, who ranked third in the A-10 in scoring last season, should be tougher to defend because of more threats around him. He made 42% from 3-point range last season. This will work and can be improved now.

Here’s another name that should help that long-range game: Frank Parker. The junior college transfer punch is a synonym for his first name — true. On Monday night, he hit his first game-winning 3-pointer while wearing an SLU uniform to spark an 11-point flurry in four minutes. Parker finished with 15 points for the Bills, tied for the team lead with Jimerson.

If Perkins turns into Perkins, and Parker can score like that, watch out.

Incoming transfer Javon Pickett quietly led Missouri in scoring in SEC play last season. Like Thatch and Collins, he is a relentless defender. Don’t sleep on his potential for this group. Had he played for SLU last season and repeated the scoring he put up in the SEC, he would have tied Collins for second-highest on the team behind Jimerson’s 16.3.

Ford started Collins, Pickett, Thatch, Jimerson and Okoro on Monday. This lineup could change based on Perkins’ health and bench names (Parker!) pushing forward. High-flyer Terrence Hargrove Jr. must be crashing the boards with fury. Temple’s energetic transfer Jake Forrester adds to the frontcourt depth. Two impressive students – Kellen Thames and Larry Hughes Jr. – are able to help, but in the best way. They don’t have roles waiting for them. They have to offload the roles to someone else. An internal race should be simmering within this herd all season long. Iron sharpens iron.

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We must mention two conditions.

The key starters should stay healthy and the bad luck should fade.

SLU has paid enough of a disaster tax in recent seasons. Perkins’ knee injury last season. COVID cut SLU twice in the two seasons before that, destroying an offensive flow after a breakout in 2020-21 and canceling the A-10 and NCAA tournaments in 2019-20 after the Billikens had won six of their last seven games. Matching a 2019 NCAA Tournament appearance shouldn’t be the goal right now. It should be the beginning of the goal. If not, Ford will underperform with its best team yet.

Yes, Dayton is good and loaded with talent too. But the Billikens have the spice the youthful Flyers don’t. Better take advantage now, because the Flyers will continue to grow quickly.

Through six seasons of the Ford era, the Billikens have become a team seemingly one season away from its breakthrough.

If it’s going to happen, now is the time.


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