Aug 31, 2012
By Tom Weber
CARBONDALE, IL - The Missouri Valley Conference announced its preseason men's basketball poll on Monday, and the collective wisdom of coaches, sportswriters, radio announcers and SIDs pegged the Salukis to finish last.
Southern Illinois hasn't been picked to finish in the basement since 1987, and for the record, that team managed to go 5-9 in the conference and place sixth.
Personally, I put SIU ninth on my ballot, but if things fall right, I can envision the team finishing higher, and perhaps out of the dreaded Thursday play-in game in St. Louis. Today, I'll lay out for you the bull case, the bear case, and let you decide.
Here are some reasons to be bullish on the 2012-13 Salukis and their chances of finishing higher than predicted.
1. Desmar Jackson. If you haven't seen the 6-foot-5 junior guard play, then you are in for a treat. He is a pure scorer and presents a difficult matchup in this conference because of his combination of length and athletic ability. Jackson will have to knock some rust off after sitting out last season, but he's easily the best guard Southern has had since Kevin Dillard transferred after the 2010 season.
2. A veteran back court. In addition to Jackson, who is 22-years-old, the Salukis have a trio of elder statesmen at guard in Jeff Early (24), T.J. Lindsay (22) and Kendal Brown-Surles (21). No, this group doesn't represent the second coming of Jamaal Tatum and Tony Young, but an experienced, battle-tested back court is always a plus.
4. A senior point guard. Brown-Surles has made steady improvement throughout his career. Even after missing the first semester last year due to academics, he averaged a career-best 8.0 points and 2.4 assists. He's in the all-important driver's seat of Saluki Basketball, and if KBS picks his game up a notch, Southern will win its share of games.
5. An easier non-conference schedule. Last year, the Salukis prepared for conference play by getting swept by Kansas State, Clemson and Xavier during a Christmas trip to Hawaii. A confidence-builder it was not. This year, the Salukis will play UC-Davis, Nicholls State and Utah State in a late-December warm-up for league play.
6. Less pressure. Last year's staff had to win to save their jobs. Everyone knew it, especially the players. The new staff can coach the team without looking over their shoulders.
That's the raging bull case, but what about the growling bear?
1. The Salukis are thin in the front court. Thin might be an understatement. Gone from last year are Mamadou Seck, Treg Setty and Harry Whitt. No reinforcements have arrived. Valley big men like Gregory Echenique, Jackie Carmichael and Seth Van Deest can burn through your front-court depth pretty fast. The Salukis have little margin for error with just Daniels, sophomore Antonio Bryer and junior Davante Drinkard manning the paint.
2. Rebounding. SIU was -1 in rebounding average last year, and that team featured one of the league's best rebounders in Seck. The boards are going to have to be won by committee. Don't be surprised if guards Jackson and Early post big numbers on the glass this year, but will it be enough?
3. 3-point shooting woes. Last year's team was the worst 3-point shooting team in school history at 28.2 percent. In the team's lone exhibition game so far, it shot 5-for-19, so the question remains, how much improvement from the perimeter, if any, will Southern make?
4. There are no immediate impact players among the freshmen. Forwards Bola Olaniyan and Chase Heins will redshirt. Jalen Pendleton and Anthony Beane, Jr. might play this year, but neither is expected to start. This is essentially the same team as last year (plus Jackson, minus Seck and Co.).
5. Free-throw shooting. The eight returning players on SIU's roster combined to shoot 57.8 percent from the free throw line last year. If they repeat that performance this season, SIU won't win many close games.
6. Defense wins championships. Good offense is fun to watch, but the truly great Saluki teams of the past decade won trophies with sticky, in-your-face defense. The Salukis were last in field goal percentage defense and 3-point defense a year ago. If the new coaching staff can't shore up the D, then it could be a long year.
So, what side are you on? The next chance to test your theory comes on Saturday when the Salukis play Upper Iowa at 7 p.m. See you there, after the big football game versus South Dakota State.