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

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

How about over the north sideline, posted near section 205?

There you can find the first two Billikens basketball banners from the Travis Ford era. A unique trip to the NCAA tournament in 2019. An Atlantic 10 tournament championship that made it possible.

This is. That’s all.

Time for something new. A bigger. Season seven should be a banner year for the Ford team, and it should be.

Ford won’t shout it from the Midtown rooftops, but he knows what we know. This has to 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 loaded with talent, loaded with experience and driven by a desire to be better than just good.

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Big teams have great guards. They have ripened appetizingly. They can get to the basket and shoot well from outside. They rebound and defend with intensity. They’re fueled not by preseason accolades — SLU was picked second in the Atlantic 10, behind Dayton — but by a determination to make the kind of statement this bunch wears on the back of their new warmup jerseys a reality: “The journey is the reward.”

We’ll see where this journey goes, but make no mistake. The Ford team has the chops to go places. Need more proof? How about this excerpt from the bible of the sport, the Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook by Chris Dortch.

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“It’s hard to look at this team and not see big things,” the report said. “St.Louis is deep, experienced and talented. This is a very good combination.”

Point guard Yuri Collins on Monday was correctly named to the Bob Cousy Awards watch list, along with other candidates, for the nation’s top point guard 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 took him hard last offseason. Stayed. The investment will pay dividends.

Javonte Perkins didn’t play Monday as there’s no reason to rush that ankle injury he’s dealing with, but he’s back from last season’s season-ending knee injury that turned sixth-seeded Ford into the woeful side of the bubble of the NCAA Tournament . Perkins no longer has to lead the team every night. His team was improving as he healed. He just needs to contribute and he will.

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

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Gibson Jimerson, who ranked third in the A-10 in scoring last season, should be more difficult to guard because of more threats around him. He made 42% from 3-point range last season. This will work and could be improved now.

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

If Perkins is Perkins again and Parker can score like that, 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 team. If he played for SLU last season and repeated the scoring he put up in the SEC, he would tie Collins for second-highest on the team behind Jimerson’s 16.3.

Ford started Collins, Pickett, Thatch, Jimerson and Okoro Monday. That lineup could change based on Perkins’ health and bench names (Parker!) pushing forward. Flying Terence Hargrove Jr. must smash the boards with fury. Temple power forward Jake Forrester adds depth to the frontcourt. Two impressive freshmen — Kellen Thames and Larry Hughes Jr. — are able to help, but in the best way. There are no roles waiting for them. They have to take roles away from someone else. An internal competition should be simmering within this bunch all season long. Iron sharpens iron.

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We must mention two conditions.

The key starters need to stay healthy and the bad luck needs to fade.

SLU has paid quite the toll of bad luck in recent seasons. Perkins’ knee injury last season. COVID interrupted SLU twice in the two seasons before that, ruining an offensive flow after an outbreak in 2020-21 and canceling the A-10 and NCAA tournaments in 2019-20 after the Billikens had won six of their last seven their games. Matching the 2019 NCAA Tournament appearance shouldn’t be the goal now. It should be the beginning of the goal. Otherwise, Ford will have underperformed with its best team yet.

Yes, Dayton is good and full of talent, too. But the Billikens have no seasoning on the young Flyers. 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 one season away from their breakthrough.

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

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