There’s a stool in every corner of the Saint Louis gym so Rick Majerus can roam the building and do his scrutinizing comfortably.
The 64-year-old coach likes what he’s seeing these days.
Majerus was hired five years ago to elevate the school’s national profile, and his work is finally bearing fruit. The Billikens (25-7) are in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2000 as the No. 9 seed in the West with an opening-round matchup against Memphis (26-8) on Friday.
Majerus is making his 12th NCAA appearance in his 25th season, one year after enduring the first losing season of his career. He has done it without taking shortcuts, assembling his typical international-flavor roster that includes key contributors from Australia and New Zealand and is just as efficient in the classroom.
Seniors Brian Conklin and Kyle Cassity have already graduated with honors and are working on their MBAs. Sophomore forward Dwayne Evans and sophomore reserve forward Jake Barnett are 4.0 GPA students.
“If academics counted, we might be the national champion,’’ Majerus said. “They’re probably No. 1. What box don’t we check anymore? We’ve got great kids, our attendance was up 20 percent, we’ve won on the road, we play a great schedule, we’re in the tournament.’’
Except for the Majerus connection, the Billikens are something of an unknown quantity entering the tournament.
The résumé is impressive - a second-place finish in the Atlantic 10 and games against five NCAA Tournament teams, including a 73-68 victory at Xavier in January that ended the Musketeers’ 43-game home winning streak. All that and Saint Louis didn’t get a single vote in the final AP Top 25 poll.
It’s nothing new for a school seemingly forever forced to prove itself, and for a team that gained additional motivation minutes after celebrating the bid when a TV commentator picked Memphis to upset top seed Michigan State in the West final.
The Billikens lack a go-to star, but can go nine deep, make teams work for everything on defense, and minimize mistakes. The 6-foot-6-inch Conklin is the leading scorer with a 13.9-point average mostly off drives and going 141 for 178 at the line - 93 more free throws than anyone else on the roster. Cody Ellis is a 40 percent shooter from 3-point range as the sixth man, going 6 for 9 against Saint Joseph’s and 5 for 8 against Fordham in a pair of February games. The 6-5 Evans has seven double-doubles.
Saint Louis has 119 fewer turnovers and 58 more steals than its opponents, who score just 57 points per game. It’s a team that can stick around, too, as Majerus proudly notes that in all but one of the losses the game was up for grabs until the final two minutes.
Majerus has produced a 13-win improvement one year after a dismal failure marked by suspensions to the two top players and an injury that sidelined the coach for a half-dozen games. The coach refers to that lost season as “team interrupted.’’
“Everything that could have gone, went wrong,’’ Majerus said. “It’s all behind us now.’’
Jackson leaving USC
Southern California has granted forward Garrett Jackson permission to transfer.
Coach Kevin O’Neill said Jackson “did a great job’’ for two years and is free to contact other schools. The sophomore plans to remain enrolled through the end of the semester.
Jackson averaged 6.9 points and 3.1 rebounds in 32 games this season, including the final 14 as a starter.
USC finished 6-26, setting a school record for losses.
Sailors in Hall
When told that he had been elected to the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame, Kenny Sailors was proud, thankful, and perhaps relieved he lived long enough to see the honor.
Speaking publicly for the first time since being told he is being inducted into the Hall, the 91-year-old Sailors said that he was personally notified by the chairman of the selection panel.
Sailors led Wyoming to the 1943 NCAA title. He was the national player of the year and most outstanding player in the ’43 NCAA Tournament.
He is credited by some with being the first to use the modern jump shot.
Central Michigan fired coach Ernie Zeigler with two years left on his contract.
The buyout will cost the school $368,437.
Zeigler was 75-111 over six seasons. He was given a new, four-year contract two years ago when he was about to sign his son, Trey, to a scholarship to play for the Chippewas.
Central Michigan was 11-21 this season and 10-21 last year. Trey Zeigler has averaged 16 points a game over two seasons, leading the team in scoring each year.
Lavin, Wright analysts
St. John’s coach Steve Lavin and Villanova’s Jay Wright will serve as guest studio analysts for tournament coverage this week, CBS and Turner Sports announced . . . President Barack Obama likes North Carolina’s chances of winning the NCAA title. Obama picked the Tar Heels to win it all in his 2012 NCAA bracket, which was revealed on ESPN. He correctly picked North Carolina to win the 2009 NCAA title.
Wayns entering draft
Villanova junior guard Maalik Wayns will enter his name in the 2012 NBA draft. Wayns has not hired an agent, keeping open the option of returning for his final season. The deadline for early entrant candidates to remove their names from draft consideration is April 10. Wayns led the Wildcats in scoring at 17.6 points per game.