Rick Majerus was not a good basketball coach, he was a hoops savant. Like so many geniuses, he battled demons. He could be tough on players and his staff, but he loved them. He consistently had issues with weight and health. He won at Marquette. He won at Ball State. He won at Utah. He built Saint Louis to the cusp of greatness. Majerus won an NCAA Tournament game last year with the Billikens and was primed for a great season this year. He took a medical leave of absence from the team in August and passed away in December. Jim Crews has been the interim head coach since August.
Crews was hired by Majerus as an assistant coach after seven unsuccessful seasons as the head coach at Army. The Knights won just 19 games in his first four seasons but improved to near .500 records in his fifth and sixth years. He was dismissed after going 11-19 in 2008-2009.
He spent 17 years as the head coach as Evansville. He took the Aces to the NCAA Tournament four times, and finished with a 294-209 record. Since Crews was let go in Evansville, the team has not reached the NCAA Tournament.
Crews had sworn off coaching when Majerus called. He told the Evansville Courier & Press “I was done with it.” He thought it would be a short term situation helping out a friend who needed a veteran presence at the last minutes when a couple of assistants left last year for other jobs right before practice began in October. He decided to come back for a second year, at the urging of Majerus, because year one was a good experience. Now he is leading Majerus's team.
The Billikens were one of six Atlantic 10 teams to receive votes this year as the preseason conference favorite. The league is sending a record five teams to the NCAA Tournament. Saint Louis won the regular season crown, and tournament title. The Billikens are the four seed in the Midwest Region. If seeds hold, they will win two games in the same NCAA tournament for the first time in school history.
Saint Louis does not have a single player who averages 14 points per game or more. Many will look at their resume and question how a team that is 1-2 against the Top 25 is ranked among the best 16 teams in the country. The answer is in the way Majerus always played. They are an elite defensive team, that forces turnovers, rarely gives the ball away on offense, and is playing their best ball in March.
The Billikens are 15-1 since January 19. The roster is almost entirely upperclassmen. They won in the tournament last year and have played all season with heavy hearts. If they beat New Mexico State in San Jose on Thursday, they will get Oklahoma State or Oregon on Saturday. Should they advance to the Sweet 16, top overall seed Louisville is a likely opponent. Rick Pitino would not have welcomed a matchup with Saint Louis knowing that Majerus had an entire week to prepare for the game. Crews has done a pretty good Majerus impression throughout the season.