The 24-6 record isn't the only thing that makes this season feel different. In head coach Rick Majerus' fifth year at the helm of Saint Louis University, there is simply something that sets this campaign apart. Redshirt junior guard Kwamain Mitchell seemed to sum it up: "We can beat anybody in our conference."
In the past five years, Xavier has been the gold standard in the Atlantic 10. Temple, Dayton, Richmond, and others have taken turns at multiple postseason berths. Yet this year, SLU has seen a bit of role reversal. The Billikens are now part of the hunted in a tough Atlantic 10.
Perhaps it has been the play of first-team All Atlantic-10 selection Brian Conklin or the return of Mitchell. Performances from defensive stalwart Jordair Jett and a resurgent year from junior Cody Ellis have aided the SLU success.
Within those 24 wins is something that no one will see, though. Majerus will tell you it counts for far more. Of the four players who received postseason awards in the league, none were more important than the two Billikens selected to the All-Academic Team. Senior guard Kyle Cassity joined Conklin, who also was a second team Academic All-American, on the squad. In fact, Majerus lobbied for yet an additional Billiken slot on the five-man scholastic list.
"I thought [Dwayne Evans] should've made All-Academic league this year," Majerus said. "I think sometime when you dominate the academic scene like we do then. . .I don't know why he didn't make it."
Although student-athletes primary reason for going to college is to get a degree, they will be remembered for what they do on the court. Conklin has made the most significant strides since last year, and with his dedication, it's easy to see how.
Majerus said that each players is armed with a card that grants 24/7 access to the gym and facilities. Conklin would often take advantage of the opportunity to get more shots up or work on other aspects of his game.
"You have to decide if you want to be Conklin," Majerus said. "I inherited a couple of players that didn't want to live in the gym. They wanted to live in the social scene or the scene of video games or TV."
Mitchell and Conklin were poised in the preseason to lead the Billikens offensively but on the defensive side of the ball, Jett became the unsung hero. Majerus is widely-known as a defensive guru, and the stocky 6-foot-2 bought into his system after having some suspects moments as a freshman.
"It's a tribute to Jordair that he competes so hard," Majerus said. "[He's] strong, tough, athletic, smart, he can cover three positions. He's embracing what he can do."
It should come as no surprise that the only coach to start two Academic All-Americans in the Final Four (Hanno Mottola and Michael Doleac) would once again focus on the student portion of "student-athlete".
"I'm proudest of Jordair in the classroom," Majerus said. "He has given that effort that I would like to see Jordair give in the gym, he's given in the classroom. If he can only give it in one place, he's giving it in the right spot."
As the Billikens look ahead to their A-10 opener on Friday against either La Salle or Richmond, there wasn't much to see. In an office that is usually chock-full of plays and information on opponents, the whiteboards were bare.
"This is the first time you've walked in and there's nothing on the boards," Majerus said. "I'm not going to sit here and guess who we're playing."
While SLU doesn't know who it will play on Friday, the popular question around town is if the Billikens into The Dance yet. Of course no one can be sure, and although Majerus suggests none of the "500 talking heads" say the Bills aren't a tournament team, he wasn't ready to make a statement one way or another. He certainly believes that they have earned a berth, though.
"If we're not in as the No. 2 team [in the Atlantic 10] with our schedule and our record," Majerus said. "We've done everything the NCAA asked you to do. We've played everybody you can play and we've documented that we tried to play. We tried to play Missouri, that's well-documented. No one trying to schedule an opponent is more well-documented than us trying to play Missouri. So they can't come and say, 'Jeez'. We tried to play Creighton, we tried to play Illinois, we tried to play Wisconsin, we tried to play Kansas. We've done everything we can do to meet every criteria."
Until March 11 rolls around, the Billikens will have to be content with a solid record and a remarkable academic showing. Part of me thinks Majerus might prefer it to be that way anyhow.