Stevens has a sleeper pick: Saint Louis

NEW YORK -- If you’re looking for a sleeper pick for your NCAA tournament pool (for fun purposes only, of course), I have a guy who has a team for you.

His name is Brad Stevens, and he’s got some good insider knowledge on this sort of thing.

I mean, if you think back-to-back Final Fours out of Butler give you any insight.

“I’ve said all year to anyone who would listen to me, and even people who wouldn’t, how good Saint Louis is," the Butler coach said. “They’re a legitimate contender to win the whole thing. I believe that wholeheartedly."

Here on Selection Sunday Eve, plenty of teams are still sweating out their spot and fretting the bubble.

By Sunday night, some poor sap will be sweating his first game against the Billikens, and some potential Round of 32 foe will suddenly find himself a big fan of the poor sap.

Because Stevens is right.

Saint Louis is that good. The Billikens beat Butler in the Atlantic 10 semifinals 67-56, advancing to their first A-10 tourney final and what ought to be a pretty good seed in the NCAA tournament.

Whatever they get, wherever they go, the Billikens will carry with them the story that has trailed them all season -- one that pulls on your heartstrings, unless you’re the Tin Man.

In December, the Billikens served as pallbearers at the funeral of their former coach, Rick Majerus.

A week later, they resumed the business of basketball.

But this feel-good story is more than a good story, and this is not a warm and fuzzy basketball team. The Billikens beat Butler, for the third time this season, in a way that was clinically and physically cruel.

They outmuscled and overpowered the Bulldogs in a way that doesn’t necessarily show up on the stat sheet but was plenty evident for anyone watching.

Afterward, Butler’s Roosevelt Jones marveled at Dwayne Evans. Evans doesn’t look like much when he’s standing in front of you, but Jones, no slouch in the tough-guy department, nonetheless labeled Evans "the most physical guy I’ve played in my life."

Jones’ coach stretched that compliment to the entire Saint Louis team, calling Billikens the most physical team Butler has faced all season.

This from a guy whose nonconference schedule included Indiana and Gonzaga, two teams that could end up as No. 1 seeds on Sunday night.

“On pure strength, there’s no one better than these guys," Stevens said. “I know everyone is going to be chasing Indiana in the tournament, but Saint Louis is old. They’ve been through it, they’ve done it, and they are men. They are men."

But Saint Louis is hardly a team of hockey goons that simply beats up anyone who gets in its way. The Billikens are smart, efficient and experienced, a combination that is lethal and increasingly rare in this era of one-and-done turnstile basketball.

The roster includes eight juniors and seniors, guys who not only know one another but genuinely like one another. They have been through an emotional roller coaster that no one else can appreciate, and while it sounds incredibly trite, it has brought them closer together.

“We’re not a big stat team," Billikens interim coach Jim Crews said. “These guys have tremendous wisdom, and that doesn’t show up in the stats. We like that."

There will be plenty of folks who like Saint Louis starting next week, I’m guessing. That’s always dangerous -- to be anointed the hot team by the masses.

But the Billikens aren’t exactly the type to have their heads turned. They’ve been through too much and are far too smart to get caught up in their own wonderfulness.

If by some slim chance they do, Crews will be there to knock them down to reality.

He was hilariously disinterested in biting on what to make of his program and what Saint Louis might do in the NCAA tournament.

Asked if his team was a mid-major, Crews said he wasn’t going to worry about "what some guy in Idaho said" about the Billikens.

Pushed to explain how tough it would be to prepare for his team on a short turnaround, he shrugged and offered insight Yogi Berra would envy.

“Sometimes if you don’t know what you’re doing, you don’t turn it over and you don’t take bad shots, they don’t know what you’re doing either," Crews said.

Nice try, Coach.

The secret is out on Saint Louis.

A certain insider has let the cat out of the bag.