March 3, 2013
By Tom Weber
CARBONDALE, IL - What an incredible end to the regular season for Saluki Basketball! The question I hear most is, how did this happen? How could a team start the conference 1-10 and finish 5-2? Here are some answers.
1. You've heard me preach defense before. Maybe you're sick of reading about it. There's no way around it, though, defense has been the catalyst for SIU's turnaround.
2. For much of the season, Southern employed an array of exotic defenses. On any given possession, an opponent didn't know whether to expect man, a 2-3 zone, a box-and-one, full-court trap...you name it. The problem was, the Salukis were jack of all trades and master of none. When the team was 1-10, it was allowing opponents to shoot better than 50 percent from the field and 43 percent from 3-point.
3. Now, the Salukis are exclusively playing man-to-man defense. It's the defense the players know best, it's one that allows this undersized team to utilize its quickness and athletic ability, and the results are undeniable. During the current 6-2 stretch that includes the BracketBusters game, SIU's defense has allowed 45 percent from the field and 34 percent from 3-point.
4. There is one important twist in regards to SIU's man-to-man defense. Beginning with the Missouri State game on Feb. 16, Southern made the unusual decision to switch defenders on screens. This is contrary to what most teams do with their man-to-man. I asked Coach Hinson about it after the game against the Bears, and he did not want me to write about it at the time, because it had confused MSU, and Southern was hoping to catch another team or two unprepared for the strategy. They now employ it almost exclusively.
5. Switching defenders in a man-to-man defense is a calculated gamble. In a traditional man-to-man defense, a defender is taught to fight through a screen (either in front or behind) and stick with their assigned man. The reason for this is obvious -- you want to control which of your players are guarding specific opponent players. You don't want Kendal Brown-Surles stuck guarding Doug McDermott, for example.
7. The benefit of switching is that it puts defenders in a better position to pressure the ball handler, deny passing lanes and create havoc. There is less indecision. You don't have to worry about guys getting lost on screens. Today's college game is extremely reliant on ball screens. Every team has a multitude of such plays. Almost overnight, Southern became a more difficult team for opponents to scout. Starting with the MSU game, SIU has averaged nearly nine steals per contest. That's an incredible number for a team that's playing possession basketball.
8. Against some teams, Southern will switch defenders on all five positions, including center. When a team presents an especially difficult matchup in the post, such as Drake center Seth VanDeest, SIU will switch everyone except the five man.
9. Would this defense work all the time, year-in, year-out? Probably not. If Southern goes back to a conventional lineup next season, in terms of size, a switching defense may not make sense. For now, though, it's working quite well.
10. Playing better defense is one thing, but you still have to put the ball in the cylinder to win games. Two players are doing the vast majority of the scoring for Southern -- Desmar Jackson and Jeff Early. In fact, they've combined for a stunning 46 percent of the offense in the last eight games. Jackson is one of the top six or seven players in the league. Early is among the top 15. When you have two reliable scoring options on offense, you have a chance to win most games in the Missouri Valley Conference.
11. Jackson is the team's best player since Kevin Dillard, but I would suggest Early is the team's most valuable player. I'm in my 12th year of covering Saluki Basketball, and there are only a handful of players who I've seen bring such incredible effort night-in, night-out. Two that come to mind are Darren Brooks and Bryan Mullins. You always knew you would get consistent intensity from them. Same goes for Early. He's playing with incredible confidence on offense, too, averaging 20.6 points in his last five games. There's simply no way Southern turns its season around without him.
12. This is an experienced, veteran ball club. Look at the starting lineup. Early is 24, T.J Lindsay is 23, and Jackson and Kendal Brown-Surles are both 22. You win in this league with older players. Speaking of KBS, he's probably benefitted the most from SIU's switching defense. He rarely gets blown-by like he did early in the season, when Coach referred to his Tijuana defense.
13. I mentioned in an earlier column that the coaching staff stayed positive with this team, even during its darkest hours. That "strategy" was more important than anything they drew up on the blackboard. Last year's team was well-coached from an Xs and Os standpoint. Yes, you read that right. The problem was, that team mentally checked out midway through the conference season.
14. This isn't a great Saluki team. It still has personnel deficiencies. On my preseason ballot, I picked SIU ninth. After the 7-4 non-conference start, I amended that prediction by suggesting the team could finish seventh or eighth. I'm not disappointed with the 10th-place finish. Southern is as good as any of the Thursday teams that finished above them in the standings (Missouri State, Drake and Bradley).
15. The MVC Tournament is stacked against the Thursday teams, and rightly so. Two years ago, SIU almost pulled off an unprecedented upset of the No. 1 seed. In fact, Missouri State needed to outscore SIU in the final two minutes, 11-0, to win the game by two. If the Salukis can get past the Bears in the play-in game next Thursday, I think they will give No. 2 seed Wichita State all it can handle on Friday night. See you in St. Louis.