Amidst the chaos of college basketball’s summer slump, SLU fans should be thrilled with the state of their program.
Elsewhere, rosters are in flux. Players stream through the transfer hub or consider pro opportunities. Missouri’s recovery program this spring, like Illinois, faces a lot of uncertainty.
But the Billikens should bring back most of the key players from their 23-win team. And with goalscorer Javonte Perkins returning from knee surgery for another run at Midtown, SLU coach Travis Ford should have his best team since coming here.
When defense tightens, Perkins can still create his own shot – whether it’s a middle-distance jump or a drive to the rim. The Billikens missed that ability while suffering narrow losses this season.
In Perkins’ absence, Gibson Jimerson became a versatile offensive player. As well as knocking down 3-point spot-ups, he converted off-ball cuts to the basket and scored from dribbling.
Point guard Yuri Collins also made great strides, more than doubling his point average while still fielding teammates. Defensive specialist Fred Thatch Jr. also became more assertive on offense.
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The progression of those three, plus the development of Francis Okoro from the low post, and the return of Perkins should make the Billikens the team to beat in the Atlantic 10.
At a time when roster stability and shared college basketball experience are paramount, the Billikens could rise next season while the rivals struggle to build chemistry.
Missouri sits in a very different place during the off-season. New coach Dennis Gates added two players before settling on a coaching staff, underscoring his urgency.
Gates inherited a mess from Cuonzo Martin. Five players from that squad made it onto the transfer portal, including potential rebuild bloc Trevon Brazile and team leader Javon Pickett. Four-star recruit Aidan Shaw also escaped his engagement with Mizzou and began soliciting other offers.
All three could fit perfectly into Gates’ press-and-run system, but all three could end up somewhere else.
Faced with potential defectors from an already flawed roster, Gates got rolling and filled two needs. He secured the nation’s top junior college contender, 6-foot-10 Mohamed Diarra, as well as a proven goal depth with Milwaukee transfer DeAndre Gholston.
This is just the beginning. Players will continue flooding the portal in the coming weeks. Good talent will stay there all spring. Shopping will remain brisk in the coming months.
But Gates had to strike early, both in the transfer portal and in the JUCO ranks he knows well, in order to generate momentum for his major turnaround project. He needs to show incumbent players, recruiting targets and potential transfers that he’s getting the program back on track.
He has pursued several point guards, including JUCO star Sean East II and Xavier Pinson, the former standout Mizzou, who spent last season in exile at LSU playing for brazen cheat Will Wade.
(Speaking of the JUCO circuit, how could Martin fail so badly in this market? While SLU struck gold with Perkins and Illinois got two good years from guard Andres Feliz, Missouri chose raw mailman Axel Okongo and mystery Ed Chang. Okongo played 30 minutes of his career with the Tigers. As for Chang, there’s little evidence he ever existed).
Last year, Martin suffered a significant net loss at the transfer portal, which doomed him this season. Gates is determined not to meet the same fate, so he has contacted almost every good player to reach the portal.
Underwood has found value there in the past, and he must do so again. The Illini face a full reset after two trips to the NCAA tournament and two second-round eliminations.
With versatile big man Coleman Hawkins and wingers RJ Melendez and Luke Goode, they have plenty of advantages. Perhaps Illinois could rake in enough name, introduction and likeness money to keep oversized center Kofi Cockburn for another year, considering NBA teams remain lukewarm about his fit.
But guards Alfonso Plummer, Trent Frazier and Da’Monte Williams have exhausted their eligibility, and point guard Andre Curbelo will make the switch after struggling through an adverse campaign.
First, a concussion derailed Curbelo’s season, then a battle with COVID-19 made matters worse. He missed most of the Illinis’ drills and mostly seemed upset when he played.
At his best, Curbelo is a magician, creating possibilities for others and himself out of thin air. But he only flashed glimpses of his old form. His turnovers, failed rim conversions and poor outside shooting cost him game time in the postseason.
Underwood is building a potential top-10 recruit class of freshmen, but he’ll need more backcourt experience to survive the Big Ten wars. So he’s fielding some of the same players Gates is courting as the transfer market heats up.
In the meantime, Ford can focus on maintaining its experienced, cohesive core and preparing it for the big opportunity that lies ahead.