It's the day before the St. Louis University Billikens men's basketball preseason opener, an exhibition game against a group of thickening ex-college players called the EA Sports Midwest All-Stars. The Bills' new coach, Brad Soderberg, is working out his team. And the message is simple: Fellas, play defense.
After watching one sequence come to an end, Soderberg rises from a crouch, addressing his team with an understated touch. "It's not just about technique," he says, his firm address betraying a distinct Wisconsin accent. "It's about taking it to a new level."
Long-suffering Billikens fans may feel a touch uneasy at the thought of another squad built around "defensive intensity." Building a squad from a foundation of tight D has become a mantra at the West Pine Gym. For the past decade, the faces have changed, but the offense has been known for diminutive point guards, three-point gunners and undersized bangers in the post.
After dismissing the pesky EA in the exhibition opener, the team's two stars of the game, swingman Drew Diener and combo guard Josh Fisher, address a small media gathering. First on the agenda, not surprisingly, is talk of defense.
"Coach was really stressing defense at the half," Diener offers. "And we improved defensively in the second half."
Fresh from his postgame radio spot, Soderberg confirms that message.
"It's probably a reflection of where I come from, but, early, I wasn't happy with the play at the defensive end," he says. "We have to defend half-court and have to rebound."
The preseason sneak peek reveals some possibilities for this team. They'll rely on the three-ball: 33 of SLU's 75 points against EA Sports came from behind the arc. They'll rebound better than last year's squad: They held a 45-27 edge on the boards, with even guards crashing the glass. Also, they'll move the ball constantly while in their half-court set. Guards Fisher and Marque Perry dished out a combined economical fifteen assists to three turnovers.
Again, Perry will be the catalyst for any successes, just as he was during an injury-plagued junior season. Though hobbled by physical setbacks, he was still able to finish with a solid year, landing on the Conference USA preseason first-team. Though still answering questions about whether he can create his own shot, Diener should be a deep threat, and Fisher has the potential to become a more consistent secondary scorer.
Whether that mixture of talent will prove sufficient to win games ... well, that's why they play them. This week, the team takes on two tests. On Friday, the University of Tennessee-Martin -- a squad that should be the opening-game sacrificial lamb -- comes to town, and Southwest Missouri State renews its rivalry with SLU on Tuesday.
Just as important as winning games for the Billiken program is this team's ability to draw paying customers to Savvis Center. The preseason opener saw only a few thousand in the stands, continuing a disquieting trend of attendance slippage in recent years.
Wins will bring those fans back, though -- even if those victories continue to be scrappy, low-scoring, defense-driven affairs.