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    April 27, 2010

    By Tom Weber and Tyler Wooten

    CARBONDALE, Ill. - During a press conference at SIU Arena on Tuesday, Saluki men's basketball coach Chris Lowery announced that two forwards have signed letters of intent to play for Southern Illinois University next season -- Mamadou Seck and Davante Drinkard -- bringing this year's recruiting class to five. He also announced that sophomores Kevin Dillard and Anthony Booker have asked for and been granted their releases.

    Seck is a 6-foot-7, 210-pound forward from Southeastern Illinois College, who averaged 15.5 points and 9.5 rebounds per game last season and was an All-Great Rivers Athletic Conference and All-Region XXIV team member with the Falcons, who finished in eighth place at nationals.

    The Senegal native joins former SIC teammate Troy Long in this year's recruiting class, and he becomes the sixth Falcon player in the last eight years to sign with Southern.

    "Mamadou can really handle the ball for a forward, and that will allow us to play him at several different positions," Lowery said. "He has a good demeanor on the floor and plays at a high toughness level."

    Drinkard is a 6-foot-8, 220-pound senior at Stephens County H.S. in Atlanta. He averaged 14.6 points, 13.9 rebounds and 3.9 blocks per game, but missed the majority of the season -- all but eight games -- due to a broken foot.

    "Davante had a lot of people on him early, before he broke his foot," Lowery said. "We were one of the few that stayed in there and stuck with him. He really enjoyed our kids on his visit, and the players did a great job in the recruiting process."



    Lowery said Drinkard's game resembles former Saluki big man Randal Falker, who went from a slender redshirt freshman to one of the MVC's top big men before graduating in 2007.

    "Davante is a big body, with good hands, who plays with a great motor," Lowery said. "He has a terrific disposition and really wants to get better. He's a play-hard guy, a rebounder, a defender. He's very similar to Randal at that stage. He can be a good defensive player and rebounder for us early and develop his skills in our program."

    In addition to Seck, Drinkard and Long, the Salukis signed Mykel Cleveland of Southwestern Illinois College and Ernest "Stretch" Watson from Trinity Valley Community College, for a total of five spring signees.

    Dillard led the MVC in assists as a sophomore last season, averaging 5.0 per game. He was the league's Freshman of the Year in 2009. Dillard started 49 games and scored 734 points in his two-year career at SIU.

    Booker averaged 5.1 points during two seasons at Southern. The 6-foot-8 forward ranked among the league leaders in blocked shots last season and was named to the MVC's All-Bench team.

    "We wish Kevin and Anthony the very best for their future careers," Lowery said. "Both players are very talented, and we appreciate their contributions to our program."


    Opening Statement by Coach Lowery

    "The number one thing I want to announce is the 2010 Recruiting Class, but for some of you guys this is the first time you have been in here, and the building has changed, and it's just tremendous. It's a credit to our athletic director and his vision of where this is going. I would advise all of you to try to take the tour, because I think it's something that will blow you away, just for the simple fact that this is going to be a high-end facility in every way. And, it's going to be a social event -- not only here, but at the football stadium also.

    We signed five guys this spring: let's start with the high school kid, Devonte Drinkard from Stephens County High School from Toccoa, Georgia. He's 6-8, 220 pounds, and he averaged about 17 points and 8 rebounds a game. A stress fracture in his foot sidelined him, so he wasn't able to finish out his senior year. He's a kid we're excited about, he has a lot of promise. He has big shoulders, big hands, and he's a kid who plays very hard, and I think that was the key in this recruiting class. We wanted to sign guys who played hard and played at a certain level and played a certain way -- a way we want to get back to playing. We had been on him all year. We saw him late last summer and followed his progress, because we knew some other, bigger schools were on him. We just hung in there and ended up getting him late.

    Our first commitment of the spring was Earnest "Stretch" Watson. He's from Trinity Valley Community College, which is in Athens, Texas, but he's originally from Washington, D.C. He has high energy. He seems to never stop moving, never stop playing, and he's a great athlete. He averaged 11 and 8 on a 24-9 team with five other Division I signees. His coach, Pat Smith, is known around these parts -- he's from Kentucky, he was the head coach at Wabash, won the National Championship at Moberly. Maurice Gibbs of Carbondale High School played for him at Moberly. He's been at a lot of different places, and he's had very good players go on. He had four or five go to Creighton, unfortunately, that played with Korver. The guy does a great job of getting kids ready to play. Earnest has a high amount of energy, he plays very hard, he's in the student government at his junior college--he just came back from Corpus Christi where he was on a trip with the student government. He's a kid who is very involved, he's out in the community, and he's very likable. He's going to be a guy people will love watching play because of his energy.

    The next guy we got was Troy Long from Southeastern Illinois. He is a very good shooter. He played with a broken leg his whole freshman year, so that tells you how tough he is. He had a pin inserted, so he sat out a bit at the beginning of this year, and then he really got going late. He was one of the main catalysts in why they went to the national tournament. He shot 41 percent from three, and being a combo guy, he can do a lot of things. But the number one thing is that he is tough. He's a Todd Franklin kid, and all the kids we've had from Southeastern Illinois have been very, very tough. They've been hard-nosed, blue-collar, hard workers, and Troy fits that same mold. This is a kid we've watched for a very long time, and obviously, we were very excited to get him.

    Next, we signed Mykel Cleveland from SWIC (Southwestern Illinois College). Stetson Harrison is there at SWIC. He went to the national tournament as a freshman. He has a great way about himself. You look at his stats -- 11, 5 and 4 -- he understands what that position (point guard) means. That is something we had to get back to -- understanding what it means to play that position at a higher level, and that's defending first, distributing, being a good teammate. At SWIC, Jay Harrington is a great coach. He's been with USA Basketball, he's been the president of the NJCAA. They run a lot of set plays, and he knows all of them -- he knows where everybody should be in different types of situations. Mykel was very valuable to us because we knew he knew how to play.

    Mamadou Seck is a highly rated JUCO player. He was teammates with Troy Long at Southeastern Illinois. He's 6-7 and plays very hard. When you average 10 rebounds a game and you're 200 pounds, you're a chaser. He chases balls everywhere. He finds ways to get to loose balls, dives on the floor. He can handle the ball, he's kind of a throwback guy because he does a lot of utility stuff, and he doesn't really have a position. He started out as a soccer guy, and he has great hands and feet. He has a great motor, too.

    With these five guys, we went after certain things like having a motor, being coachable, etc. You have to commend our players. They did a tremendous job in the recruiting process. When you look at the job Justin Bocot and Nate Mitchell did for us in recruiting, it was tremendous. It was a lot like it used to be -- where there was a family concept involved, they spent a lot of time with our guys. Our assistants also did a very good job of putting this class together and assembling what we felt we needed as far as toughness, and if we want to get back to FloorburnU, we have to recruit those type of kids, and that's what we went after. We went after the guys we know will get on that floor, do the things we need them to do and be good teammates. We're excited about these five guys, and they are the focus of what we're doing when you look at who we added.

    When you look at Devonte, Stretch, and Mamadou with Carlton (Fay), Gene (Teague), and Jordan (Myers). Jordan has done an unbelievable job of losing weight. He has lost so much weight to this point, and that credit has to go to Coach (Brad) Korn, who has him doing 18-20 miles a week trying to get his weight down, and he's done it without complaining. He can fling them in from 24-25 feet, but his feet have to get better and he knows that.

    We feel that adding Troy and Mykel to the mix with Kendal (Brown-Surles), Justin (Bocot), Jack (Crowder), and John (Freeman), we have different types of people. Jack and John are big swings, and this group will allow Jack and John to post up more, because these guys are hybrid forwards. They're not post-up guys, they do different thing with slashing, transition, and facing up and shooting. Having those guys added and keeping others intact is important.

    But along the lines of talking about our recruiting class, we're also going to talk about our departures. We have two young men who have been granted releases, and that's Kevin Dillard and Anthony Booker. We didn't ask those guys to leave. When you look at it and see why we're announcing this now, you want to give a kid a chance to say, 'You know what, I made a mistake,' and we gave them that opportunity. You never want guys to leave, but you also want to play the way we've played, and to play the way we've won, and I think that's very important for us as a staff, and us as a community. I'm a former player first, an alumni, and then I'm a coach. Knowing what our fans are used to, we have not done those things in these last two years, and I take full responsibility for that. But, in this class, we have gone back and gotten the type of players that we felt could play that way, along with who we already have. It's unfortunate that those young men departed, but in the same instance, we have to move forward and we have to win games the way we know how to win, and we cannot compromise what has made us successful, and that is playing very hard and being a defensive-oriented and defensive-minded program. That's how we got national recognition, that's how we got tremendous credibility across the country. And now, this is our step forward to get back to doing that."

    Q: "With Mamadou and Stretch, will they be able to handle the guarding the 3 in the Valley?"
    "Jack and John are big -- they're around 6-5. But, I think we'll play different ways because of Mamadou and because of Stretch because they have great feet. They're hybrids, they're great athletes, but they're tough. The things they do with their size is impressive. You wonder why they're not getting their butt kicked, and then you look at the stats and you see what they did and what the other guy didn't do, who was supposed to be bigger, stronger, and better, and that is a credit to them."

    Q: "You now have two guys from SIC -- what is the common theme in them and is that somewhere you plan on going in the future?"
    "I know their coach -- that's the number one thing. I know how he is, and I know the type of practices they have and the kind of people he recruits. Every one of those kids we've had from Southeastern graduated in two years, so that's a credit to him. We're talking about junior college players who are graduating in two years from our place and have been tremendous assets to the community and to society. We're going to keep recruiting them and we're going to keep helping him because he does a tremendous job."

    Q: How do you see them fitting in with the current players?
    "They play hard--that's the number one thing. When you play hard, you'll overcome a lot of stuff. They have an experience factor and these guys have playing at a high level, getting to the national tournament in their freshman or sophomore year. Stretch played in the toughest JUCO league in the country this year, with Howard winning it. At one time, I think there were six or seven teams in the Top 25 from their region. Our experience level jumps through the roof, but the number one thing is the way they were coached helps us because they are going to come in defensive and ready to play."

    Q: "Of the five guys, who do you think can compete for starting spots?" (?)
    "If you look at our JUCO kids, those kids are going to play, because they do certain things that we need. Troy is a shooter, he's tough, and he can defend different spots. Earnest can press the whole game, so his energy level is crazy. He's also better offensively than people think, but because they had so many guys, he wasn't always able to showcase that. But the one thing he does do is play hard. Seck is kind of a wild-card because he does a lot of things. He did a lot of things for Southeastern Illinois. He played very well down the stretch, beating two of the top 20 teams in the country -- Wabash and Logan. Doing what he did against Logan was as impressive a one-person performance as I had seen all year -- he was outstanding. We're excited about him. And then Mykel, when you look at him and Kendal, I think they will be very good together. He's bigger, he's an athlete, and he understands how to play, but the number one thing is he is a good teammate. He knows how to find the person that's open -- you always want that extension. He is always by his coach on timeouts or breaks -- that's point guard etiquette. That's what you should do every break in play, and he does that. When you look at Devonte, he's big and he plays hard. He's raw, but the thing about him is he plays very hard, he listens, and he really just has a way about him that we really liked in the recruiting process when we dealt with him and his mother."

    Q: Was coming from winning programs an important factor in recruiting these players?
    "I think so. I think it's safe to say that they understand what winning is because they all won at such a high clip in both years of junior college. When you want to increase your IQ level, you have to get guys to either buy into your system as freshmen, or you have to go and recruit those type of kids as juniors. Now, we've filled our junior class back up and added to Justin Bocot with guys with motors, guys with athleticism, and really a lot of toughness."

    Q: Why do you think these players chose SIU when they knew several players were leaving?
    "I think it was our staff and our players. These guys come on their visits, and they knew those guys were leaving. And like I said, our players did a tremendous job of selling us, and that's what it's about. When you have the guys that we're recruiting, it's really easy to be negative, but that never happened, because our guys had vision and they know we're close. And when they played with each other, there was a bond between them, and I think that's where they all grew together. Stretch got sick and had to go to the hospital, he had a stomach virus. He was in the hospital for about 6 or 7 hours with IV's. He passed out and had to be rushed to the emergency room in an ambulance. Myself, Mario (Moccia), and Coach (Marcus) Belcher went. We literally thought he was dying -- it's not a joke. He (Watson) goes, 'You know why I came? Coach Belcher stayed the whole time with me.' That was important for him. He only had one day on his visit. The second day, he got sick and went to the hospital, and then we flew him back the next morning, so he really only got one day on his visit. And he came because of what he saw and what he felt with our players. That was very good on our guys' part."

    Q: Do you know what Kevin and Anthony are planning in the future?
    "At this point, I'm not sure what their (Kevin and Anthony) plans are--we wish them luck. The way I recruit is by getting close to the players, and knowing those guys as long as I did, it's tough, and it's tough now for them. But, this was a decision that was made not only by them, but with their parents, so they obviously talked it over with them and thought it was the right decision. We just got to get the people that want to be here, and that's why we're excited, because we felt that we have added quality young men that want to play how we play."

    Q: Did they give you specific reasons for leaving?
    "I don't think the reasons are important at this point. It's a lot to do with who they are and who we are--maybe it didn't mesh. But I can't answer and tell you what those reasons are."

    Q: Can you comment on losing that entire recruiting class?
    "That class is gone, and we realize that. The one thing about it is that we got every one of those guys before they even played a game in their senior year--three of them we had in February. We had never done that at that high a clip. There are some things that come along in recruiting that you don't realize until you get them. We never make excuses for people leaving. Is it a trend? It's a trend nationally--500 players have left D-I programs in the last two years. I couldn't believe it, I had to look it up, and it's true. Sometimes, it's for the best for some of them, sometimes they have to move on. But the way we evaluated now was, 'who can play for us?' Not, 'who can we change because they're talented and get them to play like us?' We had to evaluate who could come in and understand what we wanted from them and play that way."

    Q: "How is it to lose someone that was voted one of the best high school players in the Chicago area and one of the best in the St. Louis area?" (?)
    "I don't think it will affect us at all. We were winning at a high clip here with guys from St. Louis, guys from the suburbs, and guys who are where Kevin is from. We won't be judged by them. The people who we'll be judged by will be the players who played in those areas and those parents and those high school coaches, which we can go back and get those kids from. It doesn't hurt us from that standpoint because we've had so many guys from St. Louis--that's my area, and that's where we've done a lot of work. It's understanding what goes on--not everybody can play how we play, we knew that going in. But, when you have guys from Missouri saying you might be the best thing for them, then I trusted their judgment and that's why it came down to recruiting."

    Q: "After last year, what do you tell the players coming in about what the program is?"
    "I think they know--they wouldn't have come here if they didn't. They saw what we have. They saw how they are, how they hang together, and they saw how they respond to each other. I think that all of these guys saw us lose close games, and had their opinions--that's the part of being a player. When you watch someone you're like, 'I wouldn't have done that,' or, 'I could have done this better.' The point is they're watching and seeing us on TV. Also, the fact that we have a new place coming was a huge factor. You can walk a kid around and show him a DVD of what it's going to be--that's as real as you can get as far as telling someone how nice your situation is. You can show him how many championships we've won and show them what we're going to do to get back, that's why we're recruiting you."

    Q: Did you talk up the new facilities in recruiting?"
    "Everybody knows what we have coming. We did at first, but when you get him on campus and they actually see it, you don't ever have to say it again. That's a part of having something real in front of them. The football side of it is just as important, because when you go to college, it's not just a basketball experience. Some of them had gone to other places that had big-time football, and they can see this is going to be a big-time setting."

    Q: What changes will you make to get back to FloorburnU?
    "We can't compromise anymore--that's the number one thing. We can't tolerate because of talent--you have to do things in a certain way. It's never been 'my way or the highway' here--we always play defense the way I wanted to. The other stuff, we let them have a lot of freedom--you don't have MVPs of the league if you handcuff them like that. When we were good, Jamaal Tatum had an unbelievable amount of imagination on the floor in his shot attempts because we gave him that rope. Tony Young doesn't become a first team, All-MVC guy if it was that way. But, it is that way on defense, and that's where we compromised way too much. When we've been a Top 10 defensive team six or seven years in a row and now we're in the mid 100's to 200's, we compromise, and we're not going to do that anymore."

    Q: "Talking to Troy and Mamadou, both have said that they came to SIU because they wanted to go to the NCAA Tournament. You guys haven't been in three years, how realistic is it to getting back in the next two?"
    "I think it's realistic because of the fact that you have a big moose like Eugene Teague. You also have other guys that go around that play hard. I think you'll see John Freeman take a different role and a different approach in how he plays. He's very cerebral and you'll see him with the ball a lot, even though he's a forward. I think we're going to give people different looks, but the number one thing is that we're going to guard again. We haven't always been the most talented team, even in those years that we won--but we were the toughest and we played the hardest."

    Q: How do you go about winning close games next year?
    "Playing hard will rectify a lot of stuff. Playing hard clears up all of our shortcomings. In those nine losses we had by five or less, playing hard in a minute or two in those games decided them--we probably wouldn't even be talking about this. But the fact that it happened is on me, and I take credit for that. But, it's also on me to change and get back to the way it was and recruit those kind of kids that can play here at Floorburn U."

    Q: "With Dana Altman leaving Creighton for Oregon, how does that change the dynamic in the MVC?" (?)
    "I think it's still good. You have a guy that left for a high major and BCS league, and a BCS guy come to our league, so that tells you what type of league we have. If people are constantly trying to come and steal our coaches, it shows that our league is still where it's always been, and it's a respected coaches' league. I don't think that (Greg) McDermott would come back to a job that wasn't good. Creighton is obviously the crown jewel of our league with what they have, what they can pay, and the community and how they support."

    Q: Do you have any concerns about being able to score next year?
    "I think that all of them will provide offense. Offense wasn't our problem--70 points was a lot. It was defense. If we could have shut down people and done the things the right way in clutch situations, it would have been better. These guys have all helped in different ways from a standpoint of athleticism, from a standpoint of transition--we may be better in transition with these guys. We'll be better than this year because of how they can run and how they can rebound."

    Q: Have you been humbled by what has happened in the past two years?"
    "I don't think I was ever arrogant. So was I humbled? No. I was hurt because this is my program--there's a difference. I think I was hurt that our program dropped, I was hurt that we couldn't get kids to play a certain way, I was hurt that we weren't winning like I thought we could win with those guys. It hurts more than it humbles you because when you care about something as much as I do about this place, it makes you weary more so than anything. It was upsetting, because I thought that if those guys could have bought in to what we were trying to sell them, they could have been very special. I think anticipation was at an all-time high. It was created by the media and probably a little by me, too. I didn't put it to rest, I didn't say, 'Just be quiet, they're freshmen.' I let it go, because we had never experienced that, and that was probably the biggest mistake of all of not quieting it down and saying they were freshmen, let them grow up a little bit. We just kind of let it blow up, and once it did and they weren't ready maturity-wise and it showed up in games and in the community, then that was the issue. Some changes had to be made. It's unfortunate, but nationally people still know who we are. We still can't get games. If it was as bad as the perception, then we'd have everybody knocking our doors off to play us, and that's not the case still. Because they know that if we get back to doing what we do, we can have a chance to get back to have a better season. When people talk about us they still say, 'Boy, you guys really guard,' and that's not true anymore. We haven't guarded for two years, but the perception is that we're still one of the better teams defensively in the country because of how I teach it and because I go to clinics and do all of these things, and I give people a chance to see how you go about doing some of the things we do. It is what it is. Now it's time to move forward. It didn't work out with that class, and now we felt these last two we've added are blue-collar classes. They're kids like us that will do what we ask them to do."

    Q: "How do you expect the new guys to mesh with the new guys that are returning?"
    "Mamadou and Troy are here every weekend now, so they've already bonded, number one because of Nate (Mitchell) and number two because of the reception from the players when they got here. And with Facebook and texting, these guys are in touch with each other almost daily and know what's going on. We need to get a close team again, and it seems that these guys really like each other. We had a visit where we had three kids and we could only take one. All three wanted to come, and when you have kids that want to come like that it's important because they all played hard, they all know our history, they all know what happened in the last two years because we didn't hide anything from anybody, it was pretty clear. The thing that made them all want to come was the players, and that's a good thing. So many times you can have guys that don't want people to come, in fear of them taking their playing time, and that was not the case this spring, and it showed in who we got."

    Q: "Can you talk about playing Illinois next year?"
    "We've been fighting over this, and it finally took the assistants fighting and yelling at each other over at the Final Four--I'm not going to tell you what went on. But Brad Korn started it--Brad really is the reason why we're playing. It's the beginning of something. They're locked in with their United Center games for two more years, so obviously that was their next game they were going to play. We're looking forward to playing it. People say, 'why now?' - well, we've never asked each other. We didn't ask to really talk about it until last year. We don't ever want to play our friends and our mentors, the only reason why Matt (Painter) and Coach (Weber) play is because they have to. We're excited and looking forward to it."

    Q: "Is 68 enough, or would you rather see the tournament field expanded to 96?"
    "At our head coaches meeting there was a lot of good things that came about from it. The number one thing about jumping way up into the 90's was that it was watering it down like college football having bowls you've never heard of, and they didn't want to do that, and I think that was good because it still makes it important and relevant and one of the most special sporting events there is. And I think CBS got rid of some of what they owed to TBS so I think that kind of helped, having two networks being able to broadcast, and really having every game on. I think most fans around the country would enjoy being able to watch their team--no matter what--playing in its entirety."