Even though the absence of Saint Louis' top two players last season derailed the program's momentum and sent the Billikens tumbling to the bottom of the league, Kwamain Mitchell sees a small silver lining to the suspension that sidelined him and Willie Reed.
Not only did his young teammates gain experience by having to play heavy minutes right away rather than sitting on the bench, Mitchell also believes he became a harder worker and a better person as a result of what he endured.
Mitchell, who averaged 15.9 points and 3.0 assists as a sophomore, missed a semester of school and all of last season as a result of sexual assault allegations from a female student against him and Reed. No charges were filed and both players were readmitted to the school in January, though Reed opted to play professionally overseas this season rather than stay at Saint Louis.
The return of Mitchell and the core of last year's team makes Saint Louis optimistic it can regain the momentum it lost, contend with Xavier and Temple in the Atlantic 10 and compete for an NCAA tournament berth. The 5-foot-10 Mitchell spoke with me earlier this week about his goals for the season, what he learned from his suspension and how he came back from it a better leader and a better person:
JE: You guys recently completed a five-game exhibition tour of Canada. What do you think you guys gained from that experience.
KM: That trip helped our team a lot, especially the 10 days before the trip. We worked on some things that will help us get better. Our main goal when we got there was to take everything seriously but we also played laser tag, went white water rafting and went go-carting. We tried to build the chemistry we have on the court off the court too. Our chemistry is improving. It could get better with my leadership and the leadership of the other seniors. We can't wait to improve in that area.
JE: You had a scary fall during the final minutes of the game against Carleton on the trip. Describe what happened and are you still feeling any lingering effects?
KM: I hurt my back falling on the concrete stairs. At the time it was really painful because I hit my spine and it was sensitive and bruised. I'm good now. I've been resting it and icing it. It wasn't anything major, so I'm good. It was scary when it happened. It was hurting pretty bad, so I hoped it wouldn't be a major injury that would affect me this season. I'm glad it was just a minor bruise.
JE: It has obviously been a long time since we've seen you on the court in a Saint Louis uniform. What have you tried to focus on improving during that time?
KM: I want to become a leader. I'm working on trying to be a leader anyway I can on or off the court. I try to make sure people get to class on time. Our coach always says little things may not seem like a big deal, but they are. And individually, I'm trying to bring my game to the next level and help our team get wins.
JE: Are you a better player now than you were at the end of your sophomore year 18 months ago?
KM: I think I'm a way better player and person. I'm in better shape now, I've improved my game in certain areas. Coach Majerus has coached a lot of great guys, and I'm just striving to be as good as those guys were. In Canada, my shot percentage was really good. I'm shooting the ball better. Another thing I worked on was my free throws. My freshman and sophomore year my free throw percentage wasn't that good, so that's a key thing I have to work on to get to the next level because that's important for a point guard. And then the other thing I'm trying to work on is being a leader out there when things get tough in a game.
JE: What did you learn from the incident that got you suspended last year and from having to sit out all season?
KM: One of the things I learned is that everyone in the world makes mistakes, but one thing that separates the good people from the bad people is that you learn from your mistakes. When things happen in life, you can't be like your life is over and you can't run from your mistakes. Saint Louis is my home and it will always be my home. There was no point in my leaving. If you learn from your mistakes, you can't make the same decisions over and over again. That's one of the things I learned.
JE: How strongly did you consider leaving Saint Louis during the suspension?
KM: That wasn't in my thought process. After everything that happened, I told everyone I wasn't going to leave. Coach Majerus always told me it was going to be a great story when I got older how I handled the situation. When I first visited here, my mom loved the school and I loved it too, so there was no doubt in my mind that staying was the right decision.
JE: Do you feel the need to redeem yourself at all for what happened and do you look at this season as an opportunity for you to do that?
KM: I'm surrounding by a great community at Saint Louis, my teammates and coaching staff. Those are the people I look to for support. I'm just happy to be back, I'm hungry for success and I'm working hard to try to get it.
JE: When you were reinstated last January, how difficult a decision was it to sit out the rest of the season rather than return and try to help the team right away?
KM: It was tough to see us losing. I look at it as a good thing and a bad thing. The good thing was the freshmen were getting a lot of playing time early. The bad thing was I wasn't able to help my team. I felt like I was letting them down, but they didn't look at it like that. They kept playing hard every day in practice. They had my back, so I'm happy to be back playing with them.
JE: Coach Majerus has missed some games and practices recently for health reasons. Is that difficult on you guys at all not having him around all the time?
KM: A little bit. It's a different atmosphere when coach is around. That's what makes him a great coach. Everybody is always tuned in to what he has to say. Everybody obviously was sorry about his mom dying and his health, but he reminded us everybody is going to die at some point. He was trying to make sure we stay focused on what we're trying to accomplish.
JE: We hear a lot about Xavier and Temple being the teams to beat in the Atlantic 10 and probably deservedly so. But do you guys think you can contend with those teams and potentially win a league title?
KM: Definitely. My sophomore year we almost beat both Xavier and Temple at home. We have the same team as when we played them. The only person we don't have is Willie. I really believe we can compete with anyone in the A-10 right now.
JE: Do you feel like anything short of making the NCAA tournament would be a disappointment for you guys this season?
KM: Yeah, I think so. We have a great group of guys right now. The coaches told us we have an opportunity to win. The only thing we have to do is want it. We have to keep working hard every day in practice and in the weight room and do the little things that can help us become a tourney team.
JE: Where is this team better than the past two seasons? Depth? Experience?
KM: A little bit of both. Me being being a junior, Kyle and Brian being seniors, we have a little more experience. Also, we've got height and depth. That's one of the things we tried to do in Canada is play different lineups and see who was good together. And then something else we did new in Canada was pick teams up full court. Since we have depth, we can do that now. That's something we never did before, and it worked out well.
More conference previews from the Dagger:
ACC: Lessons from the pros keep North Carolina humble and hungry, ACC projections and storylines to watch, Ex-Wake Forest star Ish Smith scouts the league, Ranking the 15 best non-league ACC games, Q&A with Florida State junior Michael Snaer