Bernie Miklasz: Majerus has reason to be proud

Mar 19 2012 - 6:04pm

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The old coach couldn't make it through the first answer. Rick Majerus was emotionally spent. He paused, looked away and wiped his eyes. Majerus is seldom at a loss for words, but there was silence in the interview room for a few moments.

"I don't want you to think I'm out of breath, or anything," Majerus said. "You get attached to kids. I'll see them again, but not in the capacity that they're in now."

It was the end of the season, and the last time that Majerus would coach seniors Brian Conklin and Kyle Cassity at St. Louis University. It was basketball graduation day, an occasion that's always difficult for Majerus to deal with.

The Billikens tried, oh how they tried, to keep going in this NCAA Tournament. With a long-shot chance to upset No. 1 seed Michigan State in the West Regional, the SLU players stood up to the superior Spartans and waged a desperate fight for the full 40 minutes.

Michigan State matched the Billikens' competitive fervor and used a built-in edge in talent to make more shots. In the end Michigan State had too much experience, too much confidence and too much Draymond Green for the Billikens. It was close, with the Spartans fending off SLU for a 65-61 victory at Nationwide Arena.

The Billikens could walk away disappointed but proud. They had nothing left to give and earned respect from everyone in the building, including Michigan State coach Tom Izzo. Sparty is moving onto the Sweet 16, and they'll carry some few welts and contusions administered by the pugnacious Billikens.

Stylistically this was no Muhammad Ali vs. Joe Frazier fight; this was two Fraziers brawling. Izzo gave Majerus more than the customary drive-by handshake after the game. Izzo stopped and pulled Majerus close to express his admiration.

"I don't know if you would believe this or not, but I thought to myself the game would go just like it went," Izzo said. "I didn't know who would win, but I told my guys I know what a good coach he is.

"People told me to be ready, because Rick does different things if need be. He did an incredible job (preparing) in one night. I knew it would be a physical war. So give them a lot of credit. I mean, that was one of the tougher games we've played in."

Despite making only 35 percent of their shots and trailing by 11 points in the second half, the Billikens cut the lead to two and lost to a No. 1 seed by only four points.

How is that even possible?

"The game is all about runs," SLU redshirt junior guard Kwamain Mitchell said. "The one thing Coach was proud about, when they had that run, we didn't give up. We were out there fighting and scrapping."

The ending wasn't what the Billikens wanted, but you can't say the same about their 2011-2012 season. SLU won 26 of 34 games, finished second in the Atlantic 10 Conference and made it to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2000.

In winning an NCAA game for the first time since 1998, SLU outlasted a more highly regarded Missouri team in the 2012 tourney.

It was a season that should lead to even better days, even if it's hard right now for Majerus to say goodbye to his guys. That's especially true of Conklin, a self-made, hard-working player that absorbed his coach's devoted teaching until developing into a first-team all-conference forward.

When asked about what Majerus had done for him and SLU basketball, the classy Conklin wept on the interview podium, giving a heartfelt answer between sobs. It was as meaningful a tribute as you'll ever hear a player give his coach.

"Coach has done so much," Conklin said. "Being his first recruiting class, he told me that we were going to help him build something special here. And it felt like this year it really came together. We were able to take what Coach taught us.

"He's a great coach. I couldn't imagine playing for a better coach, a better person. He doesn't just teach you about basketball; it's about life. And he's a great figure for the community and for the city, and he's really brought St. Louis basketball to where it is right now, bringing in great guys.

"We all love each other in that locker room. And he just knows how to read a person and he brings us all together and we buy into his system because it works, and it brought us this far this year. And you know they've got a great nucleus coming back next year and they're going to be a really tough team."

The Billikens lose only Conlin and Cassity to graduation; everyone else is returning. Majerus is happy with his incoming recruits, shooting guard Jared Drew (from (Indianapolis) and point guard Keith Carter (Chicago.) Majerus also believes his 6-11 freshman, John Manning, can develop into a formidable post player.

Majerus, 64, has established traction with his program, and he's made SLU hoops relevant again. He's wiped out from the grind of the season but is giving no thought to retiring. Majerus made sure to let everyone know he's happy at SLU, loves his players and has reassured the recruits that he's staying.

"I could get killed driving home tonight, but I really plan to be there," Majerus said. "I wouldn't do that to the kids. We've got a lot of good guys coming back. I just want to take some time off."

Majerus is dreaming of an upcoming vacation to California and Hawaii. But hold off on packing that bag. His assistants are trying to talk him into going to Iowa to see a potential recruit.

They want him to go today, Monday.

Can't a tired coach take to rest?

"Yeah, I'm going to Iowa," Majerus said in the hallway near the locker room. "The kid's really good. And he's a really good student. He's like the kids I've got, kids like Conklin, that want to do everything they can to get better. That's what I enjoy about coaching, working with kids like that."

One Conklin departs, leaving the old coach sad and sentimental. So Majerus does the next best thing: He dries his eyes gets ready to find another Conklin.

"Iowa," Majerus said. "And we'll be driving."


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