Without Majerus, Saint Louis still a threat

The Saint Louis team I saw in Columbus, Ohio, eight months ago looked like a contender for the Atlantic 10 title and a squad that was capable of making a run in this season’s NCAA tournament. I had no doubts about the Billikens’ top-25 status entering 2012-13, after they reversed Memphis’ late-game lead to advance to the third round of the NCAA tournament and then, pushed top-seeded Michigan State to the brink in a tough loss two days later.

That was then. Clearly, things have changed.

The program missed the top-25 but received 46 votes in the Associated Press preseason poll, a demotion connected to its insertion of former Evansville coach Jim Crews as interim head coach and announcement that Rick Majerus would take a leave of absence due to a health issue.

Saint Louis’ challenges didn’t end there. Last month, Kwamain Mitchell -- who scored 35 points in the team’s two NCAA tourney games in March -- fractured his foot in practice. The injury could sideline the Billikens star for two more months.

From Tom Timmermann of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:

"Being forced to watch practice kills me,” [Mitchell] said. “I’m taking it one day at a time but every practice, it hurts me inside. But I don’t tell the coaches and teammates that because we’ve still got one thing we’re searching for, that’s a conference championship. … I’ll be on the sideline, chatting and cheering like I wasn’t injured. I’ve got to keep their spirits up and my spirits up.”

Guard Mike McCall will run the team in Mitchell’s absence.

“It hurts any player to be out,” McCall said. “Kwamain hurts to be out because he loves to be on court, but he tries not to show it because he doesn’t want to bring the team down. He wants us to go out and play hard and get better.”

In a season of high expectations for SLU, Mitchell’s injury is the big question mark, probably bigger than how the team will perform without coach Rick Majerus, who’s on season-long medical leave.

Those unexpected and crippling developments turned the external expectations for the program.

Projections had to be adjusted without Majerus. Another tweak was necessary when Mitchell suffered his foot injury.

But Saint Louis is not a team to ignore.

Crews will maintain Majerus’ emphasis on its superb defense (10th in defensive efficiency last season). Veterans McCall, Dwayne Evans, Cody Ellis and Jordair Jett can lead the Billikens through a manageable nonconference schedule.

And if Mitchell’s foot heals on time, then the talented player could return prior to the start of Atlantic 10 play.

Majerus can’t be replaced. But Crews has the personnel to contend in conference play and beyond. The Billikens succeeded last year because they were disciplined and scrappy, a common trait for Majerus’ teams. They should play with the same grit in 2012-13.

It’s not possible to assess Saint Louis according to the program’s achievements in March. It will play without Majerus. It won’t have Mitchell for a few months. And last year’s leader, Brian Conklin, is gone, too.

But this is still a program that shouldn’t be dismissed. Not in the Atlantic 10 or nationally.