There were moments early in Travis Ford‘s tenure at St. Louis University when the Billikens had barely enough players to hold a productive practice and game rotations were easy because the bench was thin.
In his seventh season as coach, Ford was on the floor Thursday for the first official day of practice with 16 players — 13 on scholarship and three walk-ons — and already thinking out loud about how so many pieces will fit together.
Six experienced players return, including four starters, who project to eat up a majority of the minutes. But early conversations indicate that Ford could use a deeper bench than ever during a season that will arrive with the biggest expectations yet.
“Depth is important as long as it produces,” he said. “We have a lot of guys who can play; even the young guys have been impressive in preseason workouts. It’s good to have pieces and options. One thing we have to figure out before the first game and in non-conference is where everyone plays and what rotations will be. There’s still a lot to figure out, but it’s a good problem to have.”
Right now, you can put four starters in ink with point guard Yuri Collinsguard Gibson Jimerson, forward Javonte Perkins and center Francis Okoro. Figure that transfer Javon Pickett or Fred Thatch Jr. will be the fifth starter.
That leaves a lot to sort through on the bench.
The aforementioned players along with returner Terrence Hargrove Jr. are the basis of offseason buzz. SLU is considered a close second to Dayton in most corners in the Atlantic 10 race.
How healthy the team remains and how the reserves fare could go a long way towards dictating the team’s success.
“The guys with college experience are definitely in the rotation and will play significant minutes,” Ford said. “It will be different freshmen called upon in different games, but they’ll have their opportunities.”
The experienced players who figure into the rotation include Temple transfer Jake Forrester and junior college transfer Sincerely Parker, who has scoring potential galore. Kellen Thames has been the most talked about freshman, largely because of his defense.
In most seasons, Ford has started with a rotation of many and whittled it down to eight or 7½ halfway through the conference season. The 2022-23 season provides potentially more options.
Consider that six players are proven contributors from a team that had a breakout offensive season as the Billikens averaged 76.2 points. And that was without Perkins, who was out with a torn ACL.
“They did a good job last year,” Perkins said. “I knew they could; everyone else just didn’t know. Add me to the offense and we can’t do anything but go up. Once everyone gets accustomed to how we play, it could be the deepest I’ve been a part of here.”
Parker is the most intriguing newcomer. He arrived with huge scoring credentials. Perkins said he reminds him of himself — a scorer in many ways. Ford said Parker is surprisingly athletic and can rebound and block shots.
“As of today, his offense would get him on the court,” Ford said. “We’ll figure out the defensive part later.”
Thames originally was considered a prime candidate to take backup minutes at point guard, but Ford said he will move off the ball to have a better chance to earn time. Thatch and Perkins will serve as backups to Collins.
Pickett also is a critical new piece. He was the team’s best rebounder in the two games he played on the European tour in August. His defense will also be needed, his perimeter shooting probably not as much.
“Rebounding is something we talked about,” Pickett said. “With my size, strength and ability to jump, rebounds can be easy points or defensive rebounds to get out and run. I have to go in and be physical.”
Others vying for minutes include a junior college transfer Daniel Riverafreshmen Nick Kramer and Mouhamadou Cisse and freshman walk-on Larry Hughes Jr.one of three walks-ons.
“Everyone understands our team,” Ford said. “The 16 players understand who they are. They know Yuri’s going to play 35 minutes and Gibson’s going to play and Javonte. They see that. The younger guys are in a unique position in that they get to learn from some of the greatest players in the country. They need to be sponges every day.”