Gordo: While Mizzou and Illinois scramble, SLU appears set for '23 postseason bid |  Jeff Gordon

Gordo: While Mizzou and Illinois scramble, SLU appears set for ’23 postseason bid | Jeff Gordon

Amid the chaos of college basketball’s silly season, SLU fans should be thrilled with the state of their program.

Elsewhere, rosters are in flux. Players are pouring through the transfer turnstile or mulling pro opportunities. The rebuilding Missouri program faces much uncertainty this spring, as does Illinois.

But the Billikens should bring back most of the key players from their 23-victory team. And with scorer Javonte Perkins returning from knee surgery for one more run in Midtown, SLU coach Travis Ford should have his best team since coming here.

When defenses tighten, Perkins can still create his own shot — be it a midrange jumper or a drive to the rim. The Billikens missed this skill while suffering close losses this season.

In Perkins’ absence, Gibson Jimerson became a well-rounded offensive player. In addition to knocking down spot-up 3-pointers, he converted off-ball cuts to the basket and scored off the dribble.

Point guard Yuri Collins made big strides, too, more than doubling his scoring average while still setting up teammates. Defensive specialist Fred Thatch Jr. also became more assertive at the offensive end.

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The progress of those three, plus the development of Francis Okoro in the low post, in addition to the return of Perkins should make the Billikens the team to beat in the Atlantic 10.

During an era when roster stability and shared experience is at a premium in college basketball, the Billikens could soar next season while rivals struggle to build chemistry.

Missouri sits in a much different place as the offseason unfolds. New coach Dennis Gates added two players before he settled on a coaching staff, which underscored his urgency.

Gates inherited a mess from Cuonzo Martin. Five players off that roster hit the transfer portal, including potential rebuilding block Trevon Brazile and team leader Javon Pickett. Also, four-star recruit Aidan Shaw escaped his commitment to Mizzou and started fielding other offers.

All three could be great fits in Gates’ press-and-run system, but all three could land elsewhere.

Faced with potential defects from an already deficient roster, Gates got rolling and filled two needs. He secured the nation’s top junior college prospect, 6-foot-10 Mohamed Diarra, as well as proven scoring depth with Milwaukee transfer DeAndre Gholston.

This is just the start. Players will continue flooding the portal during the weeks ahead. Good talent will remain there throughout the spring. Shopping will remain brisk for the next few months.

But Gates had to strike early, both in the transfer portal and the JUCO ranks he knows well, to generate momentum for his major turnaround project. He must show incumbent players, recruiting targets and potential transfers that he is moving the program back on track.

He has been pursuing multiple point guards, including JUCO star Sean East II and Xavier Pinson, the former Mizzou standout who spent last season in exile at LSU playing for brazen cheater Will Wade.

(Speaking of the JUCO circuit, how could Martin fail so badly in that market? While SLU struck gold with Perkins and Illinois got two good years from guard Andres Feliz, Missouri settled for raw postman Axel Okongo and the mysterious Ed Chang. Okongo played 30 minutes in his Tigers career. As for Chang, there’s scant evidence that he ever existed).

Last year, Martin suffered a significant net loss in the transfer portal, and that doomed him to failure this season. Gates is determined not to suffer that same fate, so he has contacted just about every good player to hit the portal thus far.

Underwood has found value there in the past, and he must do so again. The Illini faced a full reset after two trips to the NCAA Tournament and two second-round exits.

They have plenty of upside with versatile big man Coleman Hawkins and wing players RJ Melendez and Luke Goode. Maybe Illinois could gather enough name, imagine and likeness money to keep super-sized center Kofi Cockburn for another year, considering NBA teams remain lukewarm about his fit.

But guards Alfonso Plummer, Trent Frazier and Da’Monte Williams exhausted their eligibility, and point guard Andre Curbelo will transfer out after struggling through an adversity-filled campaign.

First, a concussion derailed Curbelo’s season, then a bout with COVID-19 made things worse. He missed the bulk of the Illini’s practices, and he appeared mostly out of spells when he played.

At his best, Curbelo is a magician who creates opportunities for others and himself out of thin air. But he only flashed glimpses of his old form. His turnovers, failed conversions around the rim and poor outside shooting cost him playing time in the postseason.

Underwood is building a potential top-10 recruiting class of freshmen, but he will need more backcourt experience to survive the Big Ten wars. So he is pitching some of the same players Gates is wooing as the transfer marketplace heats up.

Meanwhile, Ford can focus on maintaining his seasoned, cohesive nucleus and preparing it for the huge opportunity ahead.


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