But the Billikens, who returned three starters from last season, scored 14 consecutive points midway through the second half to pull away for a 73-53 victory over the NAIA squad from Milwaukee at Chaifetz Arena.
“Obviously we didn’t play great, but it’s our first time together, our first time against somebody else other than people we see every day,” junior guard Kyle Cassity said. “So it was good to get out there. It was good to get those guys out there and get some experience. We’re going to learn from it and come back out again Saturday and play again.”
SLU, which hosts Division II Nova Southeastern on Saturday night, ended up shooting 60 percent (30 of 50) from the field and had three players in double figures.
Junior forward Brian Conklin led the way with 17 points on eight-of-eight shooting. Cassity added 11 points and two steals in 15 minutes. Freshman forward Rob Loe scored 10 points in his debut, including two 3-pointers, and also blocked two shots. Freshman forward Dwayne Evans added eight points and a team-high seven rebounds.
Tuesday’s game was the first time the Billikens took the floor after losing their two leading scorers from last season, junior point guard Kwamain Mitchell and junior forward Willie Reed, to suspensions before the start of practice.
“It's just sad that you lose upperclassmen,” SLU coach Rick Majerus said. “You lose your leading scorer, your point guard, your best perimeter defender, you best shot blocker, your best rebounder and two guys you've invested two years in. That's like your wife leaving you and she's got the money in the family.”
Instead of returning all five starters from last year’s 23-win team, the Billikens returned three — Cassity and sophomores Cody Ellis and Christian Salecich — and different players will need to fill new roles.
“Guys have to find their niche, kind of feel what their role is on the team,” Conklin said. “Obviously those guys had their roles on the team. Someone is going to have to do something different, whether someone’s taking more charges instead of blocking shots when they are coming over. It’s just going to be trying to find your role with the team. Those two roles are gone, but maybe someone is going to do something different that will benefit the team.”
Cassity said playing without Mitchell and Reed was different, though he noted the possibility of Mitchell returning for the spring semester.
“You just get out there and you see two guys you played with for three years and they’re not there anymore,” he said. “But we’re not worried about that right now. We’re worried about what we’ve got. We have to play with what we’ve got. We can’t play with anybody else. We’re not worried about that. If and when Kwamain comes back, that will be good for us. Obviously he’s a great player. We’ll just wait for that day.”
The Billikens got off to a slow start on Tuesday.
Cardinal Stritch led 8-6 with 13 minutes and 39 seconds remaining in the first half after Brandon D’Amico knocked down a 3-pointer from the top of the key. D’Amico finished with a game-high 20 points and four 3’s.
“Stritch played terrific,” Majerus said. “I thought they did a great job. They played with more determination and purpose than we did.”
But after Stritch took the lead, Cassity answered with seven straight points to put Saint Louis U back in control.
SLU led 35-25 at halftime, despite 11 turnovers, as the Billikens shot 65.2 percent (15 of 23) in the first half. Conklin had 13 points in the first half on six-of-six shooting, while Cassity added seven.
“We tried to do scrimmages the last week,” Conklin said. “But you’re never going to get the full effect until you actually get thrown into the game. Pretty much half the team it’s their first college game. Playing the medias. Doing everything like that. We have to get in the flow of things, kind of get comfortable and get a game routine.”
Saint Louis broke the game open with a 14-point run midway through the second half, with freshmen scoring 12 of those points. Loe had five during that stretch, including his first 3-pointer, while Jett added four and guard Mike McCall had a three-point play.