It would have been difficult to predict St. Louis’ quick rise.
Before the start of the season, the Billikens weren’t even a lock to win their conference, despite a scaled-back Atlantic 10 that lost Butler and Xavier to the Big East. They received only three writer votes for a spot in the Associated Press preseason poll even after advancing to the NCAA tournament in each of the past two seasons.
The Billikens had talent, but top-10-caliber upside is another thing altogether.
Rick Majerus saw it coming.
Two years ago in an interview with columnist John Canzano of the Oregonian newspaper, the St. Louis coach said his squad would find its way to national prominence — quickly.
“We’ll be a top-10 team in about three years,” Majerus said then. “I did it at Ball State, did it at Utah, and we’re going to do it here.”
Only nine months later, Majerus was dead from heart failure, unable to see the realization of his prophecy.
In a lovely twist of fate, St. Louis, now coached by former Majerus assistant Jim Crews, earned that distinction of a top-10 team — leaping that far up the rankings for the first time since the 1964-65 season — on Feb. 17, which would have been Majerus’ 66th birthday.
None of it means the Billikens are perfect, of course. St. Louis fell at home to Duquesne — a team ranked 183rd the nation in the RPI — on Thursday, when the Billikens turned the ball over 16 times and allowed the Dukes to shoot 53.3 percent from three-point range. The loss figures to take St. Louis back out of the top 10 on Monday.
But the statement of the Billikens’ strength is not lost.
After winning 20 consecutive games before that loss — their only other losses came against No. 14 Wisconsin and No. 2 Wichita State — the Billikens (25-3) will try to take their positive streak into the NCAA tournament, where St. Louis bowed out to Oregon in the round of 32 last March.
The Billikens never have made the tournament three seasons in a row, but they are poised not just to make it (both ESPN’s Joe Lunardi and CBS’ Jerry Palm have St. Louis as a No. 4 seed), but to do some damage within.
They certainly have the defense for it, anyway.
St. Louis’ defense, fourth in the nation according to basketball analyst Ken Pomeroy, has held opponents to .885 points per possession this season, while the veteran-heavy Billikens have created steals on 11.3 percent of opponent possessions. At the same time, led by Dwayne Evans (14.2 points per game) and senior guard Jordair Jett (13.8) of St. Paul, St. Louis has been adequate enough on offense, getting to at least 70 points six times in the conference schedule.
As the Billikens went on their winning streak, the rest of the country started paying attention to the intriguing midmajor, which seems to have the firepower and tenacity to compete with the chalk.
Systematically, the Billikens have worked their way back to the top 10, just as their former coach believe they could, believed they would.
Come March, it shouldn’t shock fans if St. Louis makes a deep run.
Somewhere, if Majerus is watching, it certainly wouldn’t surprise him.