Day 1. That's when Dwayne Evans began to question if he had made a mistake, if he could meet the physical and mental demands of playing for Rick Majerus and whether he would ever see a day it was all going to be worthwhile. "It was incredibly tough," Evans said Friday. "Anyone playing for Coach Majerus has gone through that phase. I did, and I stuck it out, and I'm glad I did." Though there was almost no talk about the late Majerus on Thursday following Saint Louis' incredible overtime comeback victory against North Carolina State — this, after all, has been Jim Crews' team the past two seasons — his fingerprints are all over the Billikens' roster. And if they can beat No. 4 seed Louisville on Saturday and advance to the Midwest Regional, it will in many ways be a tribute to the coach who recruited their five senior starters and molded them through a 12-19 season that preceded three straight NCAA Tournament appearances. "He's always in the back of our minds," center Rob Loe said. "The fundamentals he taught us, the game he taught us, it's part of who we are." Majerus, who struggled with his weight and health for several years, announced in August 2012 that he would take a leave of absence for the entire season, just five months removed from ending Saint Louis' 12-year NCAA tournament drought and even winning a game against Memphis in the Round of 64. At first, there was hope Majerus, one of the college game's most compelling and conflicted personalities, may eventually return to the bench. But on Dec. 1, 2012, he died of heart failure, leaving a program in limbo at the height of its success. Majerus undoubtedly would have been proud not only that the Billikens went on to finish 28-7 last season with another NCAA tournament victory but that the core group he recruited to lead this renaissance came back intact and has made good on its final run. "More than a recruiter of talent, I think he was also a recruiter of personalities," forward Jake Barnett said. "He knew all our guys would jell. It's funny looking back at the last four years and I see the way we all are and why he put us together. We've been through a lot and usually when you go through changes people transfer, people leave and our guys haven't done that. I think we're better teammates to each other for it." For all of Saint Louis' chemistry and experience, however, there's one thing missing: A trip to the Sweet 16. The Billikens came close two years ago, taking Michigan State to the wire before losing by four. Last season they were red hot coming into the tournament and seemed poised to make a deep March run but were defeated soundly by Oregon in the Round of 32. It seemed the ending to their story would be bittersweet late Thursday night, down 14 with just 5 minutes left against North Carolina State. But somehow the Billikens used a full-court press, changed the pace of the game and rattled the Wolfpack sufficiently to get the game to overtime. When the comeback was complete, it was undeniably the kind of victory that only a group as experienced and connected as this one could pull off. "I think it got to that point with a couple minutes left," Evans said. "The five seniors on the court, we kind of looked at each other like, 'Pick it up, or this is it.' I think it's just really grinding every day of the year for four years now; you can't help but bond after doing that lifting and conditioning, those tough workouts, you kind of form a brotherhood for sure." Said Barnett: "You can't just develop that overnight. That's playing together for four years, that's rooming together, eating meals together, developing that relationship and trust, and it's definitely one of the things that helps you become a better team against another team that might not have that."
Rick Majerus' impact still felt by Saint Louis players
USA Today | Mar 22