The Billikens Are Here to Stay

By Lenn Robbins
January 24, 2014


You would think that nothing could have been harder than last season for Jim Crews.

Just before the start of the season, Crews was named interim coach at St. Louis under the most daunting of circumstances.

Billikens' head coach Rick Majerus, one of the great basketball minds and motivators the college game has known, and a friend of Crews, was succumbing to a serious heart ailment.

He would pass away on Dec. 1, but not before leaving Crews with a talented, experienced roster and significant expectations. Crews knew the worst thing he could do was to try to be Majerus.

He asked his players, Majerus’ players, how they wanted to handle the loss of their head coach.

“We didn’t dedicate the season to him because it trivializes his death,’’ Crews said at the time. “If we had lost, would that have meant we didn’t love him enough?

“Every player and every coach on this team is vested in this. So we said we’re just going to keep doing things the right way. If something gets in our way, just keep doing things the right thing way. And wherever that takes us, it takes us.’’

It took St. Louis to the Atlantic 10 Tournament championship, which the Billikens won in Barclays Center by beating VCU, 62-56, in as taught a league title game as there was. It took them to 28 wins, the most in school history.

Crews’ reward was the pride and relief that he and his staff had done right by the players. In turn, they had done right by Majerus.

St. Louis then did right by Crews, removing the interim tag and making him the head coach. When the 2013-14 season began, there was no ambiguity as to who was charged with maintaining the Billikens’ success.

“It’s a little harder this season,’’ said Crews. “We all can get caught up in the emotional, mental gymnastics we can play. I’m trying to keep the same attitude I had last year  - desperately trying to do that.

“In fact, we’re all interim – coaches, players, people, lives, we’re all interim. So as best as I can, I want to keep it the same.

 “We try to promote our kids, try to get them to appreciate what they have, to graduate and to take ownership of their team and their program. We’re just here to serve them.’’

The service has been excellent in St. Louis. The Billikens are off to an 18-2 start, the only losses coming against undefeated Wichita State and then-undefeated Wisconsin.

There is no trickery when you play St. Louis, no tomfoolery. The Billikens play defense like those tracker jackers in The Hunger Games.

How does Crews, who played for Bobby Knight at Indiana, and coached at Army and Evansville, get the Billikens to play so relentlessly on defense?

“I don’t know if I have a great answer,’’ said Crews. “I really have felt we haven’t had to sell anything.

“Obviously, from Rick, we inherited players that had embedded into them an understanding that the game of basketball is two parts: offense and defense.

“I’ll give you an illustration. Early in the school year, one of our coaches was working with the freshmen on defense. Two older players were walking through the gym. Without any sarcasm they said, ‘You guys need to understand and get that or you can’t play here.’’’

The Billikens style of play means they’re here to stay.

VCU was picked in the A-10 preseason poll as the team to beat this season. But St. Louis remains the only unbeaten team in league play at 5-0.

Can they make it to Barclays Center for this season’s league tournament undefeated in conference play? That’s a nasty proposition. Then again, you haven’t seen nasty until you see the Billikens play defense.

Coach's Card

Name: Jim Crews

Age: 59

Record: 46-9 in his 2nd season at St. Louis; 400-357 overall.

Alma Mater: Indiana

Hometown: Normal, Ill.

MENTORS: Dad, Warren, and mom, Roberta, now deceased. “And too many coaches and friends to name without forgetting someone,’’ said Crews. “I’ve been so lucky with the people I’ve been associated with. It’s off the charts.

“From my parents I got great support and encouragement at whatever I did. Obviously, sports were a big part of my life but my parents supported me without the pressure of exceeding or excelling. It had no bearing on my self worth, in their eyes, whatsoever.’’

HIGHLIGHT: We need to put this in a little perspective. For you young whippersnappers out there, Crews was a starting guard on the 1976 Indiana team that won the NCAA Tournament, going 32-0, the last undefeated team in Division I basketball.

That is NOT Crews’ highlight.

“We had a kid at Evansville that was working our basketball camp as a graduate, Milt Donald, a city kid from Cincinnati. I’ll never forget this because my daughter Abby’s birthday is June 28.

“A few days before, Milt says he wants to go get her a birthday present but first he has to do his laundry. He asked our equipment guy if he could use the laundry room. We had one of those big old industrial ones that you could put your arm in while it was spinning and pull something out.

“He put his arm in there and it didn’t stop. Two players heard him screaming. They run in there. It’s a bloody mess. He’s screaming the machine got his arm.

“They kept him calm, got the paramedics, kept him awake. They kept their poise. They kept him alive, basically.

“He was flown to the hospital in Louisville. The players set up a calendar. Every day a coach and a couple of players would go visit him and try to keep his spirits up. I don’t remember how long it took for him to get better – five, six weeks.

“I didn’t matter who visited, when you left, Milt had made you feel good. He lifted your spirits.

“Why’s that the highlight? It showed great leadership, great commitment and great relationships. It was everything sports should teach.’’

PHILOSOPHY: “I want a team that really plays and appreciates and respects the game and opponents in a first class way,’’ said Crew. “I want guys that appreciate and respect the opportunity that they have.

 “We tell them that everything in this program is negotiable, except being a good teammate. Being a good teammate is non-negotiable.’’

Game of the Week:

Saturday, Jan. 25 (Noon, ESPN2), VCU (15-4, 3-1) at LaSalle (11-7, 3-1) – This game is a great illustration of how tough, competitive and unpredictable this league is.

VCU was picked to win the league tournament. LaSalle was picked third. Yet here we are in the first quarter of league play and the two are tied in the conference rankings. The Explorers get the Rams at home.

Keep in mind, VCU lost in the league tournament title game last season and went 1-1 in the NCAA Tournament. LaSalle dropped its first game (a quarterfinal round matchup in Brooklyn) and went 3-1 in the Big Dance. Go figure.

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