You can have the other 67 teams in this year’s NCAA basketball tournament.
I’m rooting for Saint Louis.
Sorry if that admission violates the journalist’s Oath of Objectivity. But this is one team that certainly deserves to be the exception to the rule.
The Billikens won their first Atlantic-10 conference tournament Sunday, defeating VCU, 62-56. As the celebration got underway in Brooklyn’s Barclays Center, an unmistakable chant arose from the Saint Louis faithful:
“Rick Ma-jer-us! Rick Ma-jer-us!”
Majerus, the Saint Louis coach, died Dec. 1 while awaiting a heart transplant. But make no mistake. He remains the spirit of Saint Louis.
“Rick’s footprint and fingerprints, his lessons, are embedded into those guys,” interim coach Jim Crews told the Associated Press. “His wisdom is embedded into those guys, which is pretty cool.”
Added point guard Kwamain Mitchell, who scored 19 points, including a crucial, improbable 3-pointer late, “Losing one of the best coaches in NCAA basketball ... brought us together. All those hard times, it paid off right now.”
In 25 years of coaching, Majerus earned a reputation as an outstanding coach, a great tactician, a quote machine, and someone who marched to a different beat.
His coaching record was 517-216, a .705 winning percentage. Those numbers become more impressive when you consider his coaching stops: Marquette, Ball State, Utah, and Saint Louis. He only had one losing season, and took 12 teams to the NCAA tournament, including Saint Louis last year. It was the Billikens’ first trip in 12 years. When they knocked off Memphis, it was their first tournament win since 1998.
Most of us were introduced to Majerus during his successful run at Utah from 1989-2004, where he went 323-95. He strolled the sideline wearing an enormous white sweater, in which he resembled Bibendum, the Michelin Man.
“Some guys smoke. Some guys drink. Some guys chase women,” he told the Arizona Republic in 1998. “I’m a big barbecue sauce guy.”
Rick Pitino once suggested that his Kentucky team should be an underdog against Majerus’s Utes. Majerus told the Salt Lake Tribune, “If we’re getting in a sumo ring, he and I, then he’s the underdog. I’ll crush him. But on the court, we’re in trouble.”
It wasn’t often Majerus’s teams were in trouble on the court. In 1998, he led Utah to the championship game — against Kentucky. The Utes led by 10 at the half, and by 12 in the second half, before wearing down as Kentucky’s superior depth took over.
One of his stars at Utah, center Michael Doleac, played in the NBA for legendary coaches Chuck Daly and Pat Riley. He told Sports Illustrated, “Majerus is by far the best coach I’ve ever played for. He’s got an unbelievable ability to see the game. He can watch a play, and know what all 10 guys are doing, and what each did wrong.
“You wouldn’t believe it, but then you’d watch the film, and he was right every time. He had this presence, and he backs it up because his energy is the same every day. If you coach kids for a week, after a while you get tired of correcting them. But he never lets it go.”
When Majerus arrived at Saint Louis in April 2007, its president, Rev. Lawrence Biondi, mentioned what he felt was the Latin origin of Majerus’s name: “Magnus, meaning great.”
Majerus responded, “The name is really from Luxembourg, and I think it means sausage-eater.”
It took four years to recast the Billikens in his style of play, but Majerus’s team went 26-8 a year ago. They stand 27-6 this year.
This team carries other sure signs of Majerus’s craftsmanship. The leading scorer, forward Dwayne Evans, averages only 13.7 points per game, yet five players average at least nine.
Saint Louis won’t impress you with most stats. Their team scoring average of 68.9 ranks 138th in the nation. The rank 96th in field goal percentage and 160th in assists.
But here are two stats that were important to Majerus: points against, 58.1 (18th best in the nation) and points allowed per 100 possessions (89.3, 11th in the nation.)
His favorite player on this team might have been Cody Ellis, recently voted the Atlantic-10 Sixth Man of the Year.
“Just seeing what you’ve done on film,” he told the New York Times, “he could tell you exactly what you’re going to be good at, how you’re going to be good at it, and what plays you could run to be good at what you’re going to be good at. He was brilliant.”
Ellis has continued a Majerus tradition by writing on the lockerroom whiteboard before every game “TO WIN ... DEFENSE ... REBOUNDS.”
“You know, it was just a part of coach that stuck with us,” Ellis told Newsday. “It helps keep the guys focused. We know he’s still watching us.”
Denton Ashway is a contributing columnist for The Times. His columns appear each Thursday.