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

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

How about that over the north sideline, hanging near section 205?

There you can find the first two Billikens basketball signs from the Travis Ford era. One one-time trip to the NCAA Tournament in 2019. One Atlantic 10 championship that made it possible.

That’s it. That’s all.

It’s time for a new one. One bigger. Season seven should be a breakout year for Ford’s team, and it should be.

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

The Billikens are brimming with talent, full of experience and driven by the desire to be better than just good.

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Great teams have great backs. They have experienced appetizers. I can get to the basket and shoot well from outside. They fiercely repel and defend themselves. They’re fueled not by preseason accolades — SLU was picked second in the Atlantic 10, behind Dayton — but by a determination to make the statement this group wears on the back of its new warmup jerseys true: “The journey is the reward.”

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

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

Point guard Yuri Collins was correctly named to the Bob Cousy Award watch list on Monday, along with other candidates, for the top point guard in the national honor. If he cuts down on some of his turnovers, he can win it. Credit goes to the supporters of SLU athletics for playing the name, image and likeness game to keep Collins here. Tennessee came hard for him this past season. He stayed. The investment will pay dividends.

Javonte Perkins didn’t play Monday because 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 good side of Ford’s sixth team into the sad side of the NCAA Tournament bubble. Perkins no longer has to lead the team every night. His team got better as he recovered. He just has to contribute, and he will.

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

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Gibson Jimerson, who was third in the A-10 in scoring last season, should be harder to guard with more threats around him. He made 42% from three-point range last season. That will work and could be improved now.

Here’s another name that should help that long shot: Honest Parker. The first college tape is synonymous with his name – true. On Monday night, he hit the first 3-pointer of the game in an SLU uniform to spark an 11-point spurt in four minutes. Parker finished with 15 points for the Bills, tied for the lead with Jimerson.

If Perkins becomes Perkins again, and Parker can score like this, watch out.

Transfer arrival 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 points he set in the SEC, he would have tied with Collins for second on the team behind Jimerson’s 16.3.

Ford started Collins, Pickett, Thatch, Jimerson and Okoro on Monday. That lineup could change based on Perkins’ health and a name off the bench (Parker!) pushing forward. High-flying Terrence Hargrove Jr. needs to crash the boards furiously. Energetic Temple transfer Jake Forrester adds frontcourt depth. Two impressive freshmen – Kellen Thames and Larry Hughes Jr. – they are able to help, but in the best way. There are no roles waiting for them. They have to take the roles away from someone else. Internal competition should boil within this group all season long. Iron sharpens iron.

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We must mention two conditions.

Key movers must stay healthy and misfortune must reverberate.

SLU has paid enough of a toll on misfortune in recent seasons. Perkins’ knee injury last season. COVID cut SLU twice in the two seasons before that, destroying the offensive flow after the outbreak in 2020-21, and canceling the A-10 and NCAA tournaments in 2019-20 after the Billikens won six of their last seven games . Making a consistent appearance in the 2019 NCAA Tournament should not be the goal now. That should be the start of the goal. If not, Ford will underperform with its best team yet.

Yes, Dayton is also good and full of talent. But the Billikens have some seasoning that the youthful Flyers don’t. Better take advantage now, because the Flyers will continue to grow rapidly.

Through six seasons of the Ford era, the Billikens have become a team seemingly just one season away from their big break.

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


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