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Rick Majerus' mark left on Saint Louis players

Rick Majerus holds up a Saint Louis University

Rick Majerus holds up a Saint Louis University jersey during a news conference introducing him as the new basketball coach at the school. (April 30, 2007) Credit: AP

Amid the NCAA tournament bracket racket, Saint Louis University finds itself in upset-special conversations, and the predictable leap is that the team will be drawing from a deep well of inspiration to honor its deceased coach with victory.

It's as if there need be some power beyond this collection of below-the-radar players whose combined statistics are decidedly modest and whose Big Dance history is meek -- seven previous tournament appearances and never past a second game.

When Rick Majerus, 63, died of heart failure on Dec. 1, Saint Louis -- already being coached by former assistant Jim Crews because Majerus had taken a medical leave during the summer -- was 3-3. Since then, the team has won 24 of 27 games and both the Atlantic-10 regular-season and tournament titles.

Given Saint Louis' just-OK numbers -- 138th in the nation in points per game, 251st in rebounds per game -- the presumption of a Majerus spiritual requirement is an easy hook. And a sports cliché.

In fact, Crews considered Majerus a dear friend with enormous influence and the players, all recruited by Majerus, reflect his defense-first philosophy and grit. But Crews has made it a point not to link Saint Louis' on-court results to Majerus' memory.

"It would be great," Crews said after Sunday's Atlantic 10 tournament victory, "to say -- and, again, I don't know if I'm right or wrong; I really don't -- it would be great to say, 'This is for Rick. This is for Rick. This is for Rick.'

"But, you know what? What if we lose? I just don't buy that. Rick's life and friendship, his coaching, the relationships he had and the people he touched, are a lot bigger than winning a game, or winning a championship or having a good year.

"So, that's how I see it. Again, I don't know if I'm right, but that's what I think."

Saint Louis earned the No. 4 seed in Midwest region for this year's March Madness and plays No. 13 New Mexico State on Thursday.

Senior Cody Ellis, whom Majerus traveled to Australia to recruit, recently expressed his team's view that "the motivation is not in that we have to do this, we have to win. It's more like we want to play the way he taught us to."

There's a reasonableness to the approach of Crews and his team that indeed mirrors Majerus, who could be plenty philosophical in an environment that too often makes a false comparison between victory and goodness, between losing and evil.

When Virginia Commonwealth stormed back from a 13-point deficit on Sunday, trimming Saint Louis' lead to one with seven minutes to play, Crews appeared mystified by a question of how he and his players gathered themselves to withstand the threat.

"You're going to have ebb and flow," he said. "You're going to not play well, you're going to make a mistake, you're going to have a period of time where things aren't going your way, things you may not even understand. Off the court, or on the court.

"All you can do is try to do the next right thing. So, I mean, you may make five mistakes in a row. Hey, nobody's perfect.

"It's not the end of the world if we lose. But let's try to be our best. If we're going to lose, let's go down aggressively."

Crews affirmed that Majerus' "thumbprints, fingerprints, his lessons are embedded in these guys; his wisdom is embedded in these guys," and added that his players "have taught me things, and when they take ownership like that, you've got a chance to be a pretty good team. We talk about how the best success is shared success."

But Majerus can rest in peace with the knowledge that his team's victories are not its only success.

New York Sports