Reprise follows surprise GAME 2: MINNESOTA VS. SAINT LOUIS, 3 P.M. NCAA TOURNAMENT

March 16, 1995|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,Sun Staff Writer

A year ago, it was as if Saint Louis arrived in the NCAA tournament in Cinderella's pumpkin. The Billikens were one of the season's most provocative rags-to-riches stories.

This year, though, the element of surprise was absent when Saint Louis was seeded ninth in the East.

This is a team that has won 45 of 58 games over the past two seasons, that almost toppled Cincinnati in the Great Midwest tournament last week, that has had three lineup changes in coach Charlie Spoonhour's three seasons.

And that's why guard Erwin Claggett recoils at the suggestion the undersized Billikens are a team of overachievers.

"You can't say we're overachievers, because we did the same thing last year," he said. "Whether you're 6-6 or 6-5, what it comes down to is putting a body on someone."

The Billikens do not have a starter over 6 feet 6. Their only player taller than that averages about nine minutes. Yet here they are, in the NCAAs, squared off against a Big Ten team.

Ultimately, they win because they know how to offset their size deficit and because in Claggett, Scott Highmark and H Waldman, they have a wonderfully efficient backcourt. Claggett and Highmark are the scorers, while Waldman distributes the ball and triggers the defense.

"Size isn't everything," said Claggett, a 6-1 senior. "The key is the guards. If you've got good guards, you can go a long way.

"Our guards have to pressure the ball a little more, intensify the defense. If you pressure the guards, you can stop entry passes. . . . If they do get it inside, you can fall back to help out. And our inside people do a great job on defense, causing matchup problems."

That Saint Louis and Claggett have reached this point jointly is more than a minor feat. Claggett and Highmark nearly left the team after their freshman season three years ago. A 5-23 disaster ended with the coach Rich Grawer's firing and the hiring of Spoonhour from Southwest Missouri State.

Claggett said he opted to stay to help build a team for the future. He just didn't realize it would arrive so quickly. In Spoonhour's first year, the Billikens went 12-17, then made the leap to 23-6 last season, ending a 37-year NCAA tournament drought.

"I couldn't see this happening after my freshman year," Claggett said, "because the program was in a difficult state. I thought this might not happen until my senior year or the year after I left."

National recognition has been somewhat tardy, considering Saint Louis' success rate. The Billikens never cracked the AP Top 25 this season, despite being 9-1 and 17-5 along the way.

"I thought we should have been ranked a few times," Claggett said. "I guess people expect us to win 10 in a row. [But] it's coming. This year, people are recognizing the program."

Those same people are gaining a better appreciation for Claggett. Just as he doesn't see the Billikens as overachievers, he doesn't consider himself simply a shooter.

"A lot of people overlook the other parts of my game," he said. "When you're known as a great shooter, that's all you're known as. I like to put the ball on the floor. I like to create a lot. I think of myself as a total team player. I create shots for myself and my teammates."

A year ago, Saint Louis' tournament appearance ended with a first-round loss to Maryland. This year, it starts in Maryland. Which is just the way Claggett would have it.

"I have family in Sandy Spring, Md., and Norfolk, Va.," he said. "I come out there every summer. Last summer, I visited the harbor. Last year, I wanted to go East and got stuck in Wichita, Kan. So this feels great."

FIVE-POINTERS

Best Game: Beat regular-season champion Memphis, 68-52, in critical matchup at home on Feb. 11. Claggett scored 29 points. St. Louis got off to a 12-0 lead and held a comfortable margin throughout.

Worst game: Lost at Alabama-Birmingham, 70-54, on Feb. 4. Claggett (7 points) suffered his only single-digit scoring game, and the team shot a season-low 30 percent.

Style of play: With a distinct height disadvantage, the Billikens count on quickness, deft three-point shooting and defense. Four players hit 42 or more shots from three-point range.

Key stat: St; Louis is 15-0 when it outshoots an opponent and 13-1 when it holds as advantage on the boards.

Miscellaneous: It will be homecoming for senior sub Turner, who played at DuVal High School in PG County. Turner is the first guard off the bench and averages 7.6 points per game. He hit 42 of 114 three-pointers.

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