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(Information in this team report is as of October 1.)
COACH AND PROGRAM
When Ian Vouyoukas declared himself eligible for the NBA draft earlier this year after a junior season in which he was chosen first-team All-Atlantic 10, it threatened to ruin a 2006-07 Saint Louis team that head coach Brad Soderberg considers the best he's had in five years.
Instead, the move may have improved the Billikens.
Vouyoukas, a 6-10 senior center, didn't hire an agent but tested the NBA waters, attending the pre-draft camp in Orlando, Fla., and a private workout with the Toronto Raptors. Teams liked his size and toughness, but told him he needed to improve his vertical jump and be quicker off the floor. In short, he needed to become more athletic.
Vouyoukas read that to mean he wouldn't be a first-round pick, and in June withdrew his name from the draft.
While Vouyoukas heard negatives, Soderberg saw positives. At the NBA camp, Vouyoukas displayed a shooting touch that Soderberg never realized he possessed. Soderberg thought he had realized it too late, but when Vouyoukas withdrew, suddenly Saint Louis had another offensive weapon.
"He stepped out and shot at the NBA camp, and did it very well," Soderberg said. "We haven't used him in that capacity, but he opened my eyes to some things."
Vouyoukas and the Billikens opened a few eyes in their first season in the A-10. After going a dismal 9-21 their final year in Conference USA, they improved to 16-13 overall and 10-6 in their new conference, tying for third in the regular season. They did it despite starting two freshmen and two sophomores at various times.
Soderberg admits the marked improvement can be chalked up to the simple fact teams in the A-10 had no idea what to expect from Saint Louis. It lost key personnel off a terrible team and entered its inaugural season in the monolithic conference with a pair of freshmen guards. But he thinks they are better prepared to compete with the upper echelon of the conference thanks to Vouyoukas and young talent.
After middling freshman and sophomore seasons, Vouyoukas (13.9 ppg, 7.4 rpg), who hails from Athens, Greece, spent the summer before his junior year with the Greek
Under-21 National Team. He averaged only 4.1 points for a team that finished second at the U-21 World Championships, but the experience transformed his game. He scored in double-figures his first two games last season, and posted his first career double-double in the third against Southern Illinois.
"He really does a lot for us," Soderberg said. "The offense runs through him and he can handle it, too. Barring any unforeseen injuries, I think he's got it in him to be the A-10 Player of the Year."
A major reason for Vouyoukas' improved play is the presence of the Billikens' two sophomore guards, Tommie Liddell and Kevin Lisch.
Liddell (10.3 ppg, 6.9 rpg, 2.7 apg) is the natural-born athlete of the two. At 6-4, the reigning A-10 Rookie of the Year can play any of the three guard positions. He is one of the best rebounding guards in Division I, his defense improved as last season wore on, and he is the best passer on the team.
The only part of his game that is lacking is a consistent shooting stroke. He went 2-for-21 from three-point range last year, and shot 63 percent from the free-throw line. Saint Louis' coaches went to work in the spring reconstructing the mechanics of his shot, which should help his numbers.
"If he can improve his outside shot there's no reason he can't be a first-round pick in the NBA sometime down the line,'' Soderberg said. "I can't think of anything he doesn't have that an NBA team wouldn't want."
While Liddell started right away, the 6-2 Lisch (11.1 ppg, 2.4 rpg) didn't start until the ninth game of the season, against Kennesaw State. He responded with 15 points and remained in the starting lineup the rest of the year. Lisch is the Billikens' best returning defender and best three-point shooter (.414). He has also built a reputation of making big threes. He hit late ones in wins over URI, St. Bonaventure, Duquesne and Xavier.
"He's a dream to coach; he's non-maintenance," Soderberg said. "I actually have to tell him to tone it down sometimes, or he's going to burn his body out. I'd be surprised if anybody works harder than him."
The leading candidate to play the point-guard position vacated by Andrew Drejal is 5-9 junior Dwayne Polk (3.6 ppg, 1.4 rpg). Polk, however, must improve his long-distance accuracy. He hit just 8-of-46 threes last year.
Junior Danny Brown (4.7 ppg, 2.0 rpg), a 6-4 guard, could crack the starting lineup, forcing either Liddell or Lisch to move to the point. He may also see time at forward. Dustin Maguire, a 6-5 freshman from Illinois, will add depth off the bench.
Three-point shooting in general is one area where Saint Louis must improve. The Billikens hit 33 percent of their threes, ranking them ninth out of 14 teams in the A-10. In their three-game losing streak to end the season, they shot just 11-of-39 from beyond the arc, and Lisch and Drejal accounted for nine of them. Aside from producing some ugly percentages, Saint Louis' three-point woes made life unnecessarily difficult for Vouyoukas.
"The scouting report for us was don't guard anyone on the outside with the ball, just have a team meeting around Vouyoukas," Soderberg said.
Three-point shooting, however, is still No. 2 on the list of concerns to finding a forward to complement Vouyoukas. Junior Luke Meyer (3.9 ppg, 2.4 rpg) started the last 11 games at the position last year, but Soderberg would prefer to see another play step up and replace the 6-5 Meyer.
"I don't think we can make the NCAA Tournament with a 6-5 power forward," Soderberg.
The leading candidate might be 6-8 freshman Horace Dixon, from Greenville, S.C., by way Fork Union Military Academy in Virginia, who signed fairly late in the game, in early July.
Dixon, who averaged 10 points and 10 rebounds for FUMA, has the size to play down low but needs to develop the mindset. He has played facing the basket his entire career.
"Horace is immediately our best athlete and fits a description of a player that is not currently on our roster, because he has size, speed, length and the potential to grow into a terrific big man," Soderberg said. "He runs the floor like a gazelle, has toughness and can be an outstanding defender."
Candidates who already have experience are 6-8 senior Justin Johnson (2.9 ppg, 2.7 rpg) and 6-8 red-shirt freshman Obi Ikeakor. Ikeakor arrived at Saint Louis from Houston, Texas with much fanfare but was forced to take a red-shirt year to rehabilitate a knee injury. Johnson has started games his last two years, but hasn't been able to remain in the starting lineup.
Adam Knollmeyer, a 6-9 freshman, will get a look, and Brown may also see time at the forward spot.
"We have a number of candidates, but nobody's separated themselves from the pack," Soderberg said. "But we have quality depth."
Knowing it would have a team that could make some noise in the A-10, Saint Louis approached this season's schedule like a master craftsman. Aside from their 16-game conference schedule, the Billikens play at home against North Carolina, on the road against Texas A&M, Southern Illinois and Ole Miss. They will also play host to Missouri State, and play Houston twice. Soderberg is quick to point out that Saint Louis is playing only two guarantee games, instead of its usual four.
"We've tried to get a handle on our schedule to give ourselves the best chance on Selection Sunday," Soderberg said. "We want to get to the NCAA Tournament. We've set one goal this year, and we're here to accomplish one thing, which is to crack the NCAA Tournament bubble."
BLUE RIBBON ANALYSIS
Coming off a 9-21 season in Conference USA, Saint Louis was an unknown quantity in its new conference, the Atlantic 10. The Billikens used the element of surprise to their advantage, finishing tied for third in the regular season before getting bounced from the A-10 Tournament by St. Joseph's.
"Last year we were an unknown, so our expectations were low," Soderberg said. "That won't be the case this year."
Saint Louis returns four starters from last year's team, including A-10 Player-of-the-Year candidate Vouyoukas and reigning A-10 Rookie of the Year Liddell. Vouyoukas, a 6-10 senior center, declared himself eligible for the NBA draft only to change his mind later in the summer. Look for Vouyoukas to shoot from the outside a little more, a skill he displayed at the Pre-draft camp, and to show more toughness inside, something he's lacking, say NBA scouts.
There's talent to go along with Vouyoukas. Liddell and Lisch have a chance to become the best guard tandem at Saint Louis since the mid-1980s.
Two areas the Billikens must improve on are their post play aside from Vouyoukas, and three-point shooting. There are several candidates to play the power-forward spot, giving Saint Louis good depth. But nobody has emerged as the frontrunner. As for the threes, Liddell had his shot completely reconstructed to try to improve the Billikens' 33 percent three-point shooting.
Saint Louis won't sneak up on anyone this season, but the Billikens are better than a year ago. They have three great players and plenty of depth on the bench. They also have a schedule engineered to get them into the NCAA Tournament. Our call is that Saint Louis will make the tournament, for the first time since 2000.
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