Evaluating the progress of Travis Ford after 3 seasons as the head coach of the Billikens.
When Travis Ford inherited a Billikens team coming off back to back 21-loss seasons, it would be an understatement to say he also inherited a fan base hungry for a reason to get excited again.
The "Jon Snow" esque reluctance for control, and the overall lack of desire to recruit from Jim Crews left the Billikens in shambles. The former glory that had been achieved in only 4 short years under Rick Majerus lived on for two more seasons under Crews before departing seniors all but killed any future hope for the program.
Some might say that the reputation of Travis Ford as a great recruiter would have been enough to satisfy Billikens fans, but the simple fact is for the time he was at the helm, we were spoiled with Majerus. Not only did we get a recruiter, we got a great X's and O's coach. We got the complete package.
Enter Travis Ford, a coach coming off a 12-20 season, going only 3-15 in through Big 12 conference play. It's safe to say, Billikens fans paused, maybe even cringed, at this hire. Myself, I was a junior in high school and stoked to have a name like Travis Ford in the program solely because of the rise Marcus Smart took through college.
How naive I was to base a coaches talent off the strength of one player, but then again I was sixteen going on seventeen.
Fast forward to three years in.
As Billikens fans, we sit in the summer of 2019 looking at a Billikens team that once again found a way to return to the NCAA tournament on a 23-12 record, a feat which hardly seemed possible coming down the stretch in conference play.
A team that was once again depleted by off the court issues and injuries. A team that lacked a true scoring threat outside of Tremaine Isabell Jr. late in the season and Javon Bess, who basically carried the load night in and night out.
But to assess Travis Ford's tenure at SLU based on numbers and records would obviously be deceiving at best. While he is only three years in, there are still some interesting takeaways.
By many accounts, this is obviously the year in which Travis Ford gets a pass for on the court production.
The 16'-17' iteration of the Billikens saw Travis Ford building around a core that was comprised on Davell Roby, Mike Crawford, and Reggie Agbeko. This team was not by any stretch deep with high level talent.
Look, it's not a shot at anyone. But the reality is they were role players being asked to do more than that, and then some.
This was also a team that was asked to do more than they could with guys like Elliot Welmer, Zeke Moore, and Aaron Hines. Let's also not forget the fact that Jermaine Bishop played all of 9 games that year as well.
We just weren't built to win, I don't have to beat a dead horse.
The expectation for Travis Ford's year one was that he would have a tough run through the season, but we would begin to see what the future would look like for 17'-18' and beyond.
To his credit, Travis Ford did not disappoint.
Ford came on strong for local fans with the commitment of Jordan Goodwin, along with fellow freshmen Hasahn French, coupled with transfers Javon Bess and D.J. Foreman among other names. It became clear early that Travis Ford had brought to SLU at the very least, and oppurtunity to see some very talented players in a Billiken uniform.
As before mentioned, year one under Ford was never going to be terribly sucessful on the court, but it showed signs of light in the dark for Billikens fans.
If year one was the sampling of what we might get with Travis Ford, year two was the full effect of the Ford era taking hold.
Following the 12-21 record, Ford's team compiled in year one, the Billikens worked their way to a 17-16 record in year two en route to a second round knock out in the Atlantic 10 tournament.
What fans saw on the court in year two by the numbers break down was not really that much different from year one.
A down tick in free throw percentage by one, a drop in three point percentage by two.
Gains in rebounds per game up by three, along with a little over one more steal per game in year two and similar gains in blocks per game.
But this is where I say numbers are deceiving and really irrelevant at times when evaluating Travis Ford's tenure at SLU. It doesn't take a fantastic analytical mind to see that the style of play Ford was trying to implement is what dictated statiscal changes. With Ford leaning to a more defense minded approach, the offensive numbers took a slight down tick as a result.
If you yourself went and looked at the numbers, you would maybe tell me that the Bills saw a two percent increase in overall field goal percentage and scored on average four more points per game.
But this was following the inclusion of guys such as French and Foreman who scored primarily right around the basket, with Goodwin and Bess living off the layup including their ability to move without the ball or cut to open spots at oppurtune moments. And who could foget the Javon Bess baseline jumper.
Those small upticks were not indicitive of a better offensive team when it came to shooting the ball, at least from three.
Breaking down the record, in 17'-18', the Bills looked poised early to potentially make a little more noise than expected with a win over Virginia Tech, who at the time was more of a big name than a big time opponent. Though there's no such thing as a bad win in terms of record and name recognition of your opponent.
Unfortunately, the Bills followed this up with four consecutive losses, three of which came by double digits. Two of these losses were by twenty five or more.
After a 7-6 non-conference record, the Billikens went on to put together a 9-9 conference record, going 6-3 at home and 3-6 on the road.
So what do all these numbers mean? Ford did what he could with what he had I suppose.
To say that the year two campaign was a little under whelming was probably slightly accurate, considering the addition of two upperclassmen in Bess and Foreman, with the semi-consistent production of senior Davell Roby, and the quality play from the young guys, along with the presence of Jalen Johnson.
Lest we forget this was a loss that definitely hurt Ford's team this past season, but more on that later.
In year two, Ford continued to show his recruiting prowess with the addition of transfers Tremaine Isabell and Dion Wiley along with commitments from Fred Thatch Jr. and KC Hankton, but most importantly Carte'Are Gordon.
The general feel of year two, for me at least, was that SLU basketball was finally rounding a corner and was through the down years that we had endured under Jim Crews.
We also finally got enough respect by ESPN to have pictures for our stats leaders, so I guess that's something to hang your hat on.
This brings us to the most recent season, which to say the least was like watching a heart beat monitor in the hospital.
The pulse of the team early was upbeat and energetic.
The addition of a big name local talent in Gordon not only assured fans that Ford could recruit talent from the St. Louis area, but also helped the Billikens earn a preseason pick for number one in the Atlantic 10.
It also just point blank created more hype in the St. Louis Billikens basketball program, a la Rick Majerus era basketball.
Early returns were positive, with a win over Seton Hall on the road and a two point loss to ACC member Pitt, along with a controversial loss to Houston on the road.
Then came one of the biggest talking points of the year: the departure of Carte'Are Gordon from the program.
SLU responded by rattling off 5 consectutive wins to start conference play and it seemed like the team was prepared to take this loss of personnel in stride. Or so it seemed.
The Bills finished conference play with a 5-8 record in their final 13 games ending with a loss to St. Bonaventure who SLU would go on to beat in the A10 tournament championship.
By the numbers, the Bilikens once again saw an increase in PPG (67.4), rebounds (39.8), and steals (7.1), while average blocks hovered around the same mark and as we all know free throw percentage dropped at a more significant rate down to sixty percent.
Once again, the identity of this team seemed to be defense first, with this team finding a way to get more points on a game to game basis coming behind the afformentioned stellar play of Bess and the growth of guys like Hasahn French and Jordan Goodwin.
Scoring was also helped by Tremaine Isabell Jr. as we all watched him find his form late leading the team in scoring six of the last twelve games having only done so once in the first twenty three games. *this includes the conference tournament games*
The season finally culminated in a berth to the NCAA tournment where we suffered through a horrendous first half against Virginia Tech only to watch the real Billikens march back in the second half trying to dig out of an impossible twenty plus point deficit created by halftime.
Travis Ford has had another successful recruiting campaign that saw him bring in transfer guard Mike Lewis II, along with local star Terrence Hargrove and big man Jimmy Bell Jr among other names.
In all seriousness, I still don't know how I felt about this past season.
While I am obviously thrilled about the berth to the NCAA tournament, the story for the second year with Travis Ford's Billikens became a lack of depth due to off the court issues or injury.
However, obviously injuries are an issue Ford can't control and by all accounts I have heard, the Gordon situation was pretty well out of his control in the sense that Travis did everything in his power to help keep him here, it just simply wasn't the right fit.
So now I sit here, having seen pretty consistent improvement in numbers across the board statisitcally speaking, while continuing to watch new and exciting talent come to SLU.
How can I really be upset?
I'm not sure any Billikens fans would claim they are upset overall at the growth in perfomance.
The fact is, no matter who Travis Ford has at his disposal, no matter how great the odds, his teams will play hard no matter what. Throughout the season there was never a stretch of time in which I felt like this team wasn't giving everything they had.
Hell, there were plenty of games where I had to shrug my shoulders and say, "You know what, we just couldn't score. It wasn't for lack of effort." And this may be the most satisfying thing Ford has brought to SLU: the blue collar (or blue hard hat) work ethic of Travis Ford basketball.
Javon Bess played hobbled towards the end of the year, Hasahn French and D.J. Foreman were playing without any reliable help off the bench - the reason losing Jalen Johnson hurt, but who truly saw Gordon leaving the way he did at the time he did - while Jordan Goodwin showed he truly has a motor that doesn't stop.
Fred Thatch Jr. showed he has the potential to be an elite defensive player for SLU.
Built Ford Tough. Not just a car commercial, but now the motto and the embodiment of the team that Travis Ford puts on the court night in and night out.
Ford managed to make an NCAA tournament appearance quicker than Rick Majerus, even dealing with the loss of integral players much in the way Majerus did with Kwamain Mitchell and Willie Reed.
This is by no means a knock on Coach Majerus.
This is a statment about the grit and toughness of the Billikens current head coach, a man who draws from his experience as a player. Where Majerus had X's and O's, Ford has resilience and toughness in the face of adversity.
The '19-'20 campaign is looming on the horizon, and it now feels like it is time for the stars to come together over Chaifetz Arena for an especially great season with enough talent to make another real stab at an NCAA tournament bid, and not just a one game and out.
The obstacles are obvious.
A lack of experienced depth in the front court. The continued competitive prescence of teams like VCU, Davidson, and Dayton. The question of whether Travis Ford can finally keep the team he assembles healthy and on the court. Will Mike Lewis finally be the scoring threat and point guard who can allow Jordan Goodwin to focus on being a great offensive rebounder and slasher. Will Hasahn French continue his offensive improvement.
If Travis Ford's team can continue to show improvement by the stats and in the record, then it stands to reason year four will be another season of continued success with Ford at the helm, but only time will tell.
One thing is certain.
No matter who Travis Ford has available in March, they will find a way to compete as hard as anyone until the final buzzer sounds, and they will be "Built Ford Tough".
Here's hoping I don't see a lawsuit for copyright.
Don't forget to check out the latest episode of The House That Rick Built, available on iTunes, Spotify, and Spreaker.co