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    Feb 17, 2013

    By Tom Weber
    SIUSalukis.com

    CARBONDALE, IL - 1. First, the good news. The Salukis are playing their best basketball of the season. They've won back-to-back MVC games for the first time since the beginning of 2012. They've won three out of four Valley games for the first time since the start of 2011. After a 1-11 start, there's a chance they can match or surpass last year's win total of five games.

    2. The bad news is SIU is still likely to be the No. 10 seed at the conference tournament. With three games remaining on the league slate, Southern trails Drake by one game and Missouri State by two. In reality, though, the Salukis are two games behind Drake and three behind Missouri State, because they would lose the head-to-head tiebreaker with both teams. Southern's non-conference strength of schedule is 295, whereas Drake is 119 and Missouri State is 65.

    3. After losing to Illinois State by 36 points two weeks ago, no one would have imagined Southern would win three of its next four. Whether he intended to or not, I think Barry Hinson's ejection in the final minute of the ISU game helped the team. It diverted focus from the players and put it on the head coach. It was smart to take that pressure off his team. Instead of dwelling on the loss, the players calmly moved on to Wichita State, and that big upset changed the dynamic of the season.

    4. I've never been around a more relaxed group of players and coaches than this group is right now. Part of it is knowing that your fate in the standings is pretty much sealed, and that takes away a lot of stress. However, the coaches should also be commended for creating a loose atmosphere where players are free to make mistakes and learn from them. You see a lot of good teams in the league right now tightening up in February because of the pressure. Some coaches must win to get their teams into post-season, while others are under pressure to keep their jobs. This team has not felt any pressure to win in quite some time.

     

     

    5. Defense has been the key. A few weeks ago, Coach Hinson explained his unconventional theory that good offense leads to better defense, because the team has more confidence and energy. Regardless of the reason, there's no question Southern is guarding much better of late. In the last four games, the defense is holding opponents to 44 percent from the field and 37 percent from 3-point. Not fantastic numbers, but significantly better than the 50 percent from the field and 43 percent from 3-point SIU's defense allowed in the first 11 league games.

    6. Southern's offense has shot the ball better in the last four games, making 47 percent from the field and 38 percent from 3-point. The Salukis are playing a lot of low-possession, low-scoring games. This is a smart strategy, because it keeps a team with limited depth out of foul trouble. Two of the team's best players -- Desmar Jackson and Dantiel Daniels -- have not fouled out of a MVC game this season. Jeff Early has only fouled out once.

    7. Some of the offensive numbers are a bit mind-boggling. The Salukis have not topped 65 points on offense in nine-straight games. I looked up the last time SIU went nine-straight without surpassing 65 points and was shocked to find it last happened during the 1948-49 season. The Salukis are last in scoring in MVC games, but it doesn't feel like the offense is that bad. In fact, SIU's field goal percentage is 44 percent, which is sixth in the league and identical to last year's mark. The low-scoring games are more a result of the deliberate pace of the offense.

    8. The Salukis attempted a season-low 43 shots yesterday against Missouri State. In fact, it was the fewest shots attempted by a Saluki team since taking 39 versus Saint Louis last season. In 11 non-conference games, SIU attempted 55 or more shots seven times. In 15 league games, they've only taken 55 or more attempts three times.

    9. There's been a lot of debate lately about whether or not the Valley can get multiple teams into the NCAA Tournament. At one time, both Creighton and Wichita State seemed like tourney locks, but both teams have gone through recent three-game losing streaks, and at one point, the Bluejays had lost 5-of-7. For insight into those teams' chances, look no further than at what SIU did during its six-year tournament run.

    10. SIU received a remarkable FIVE at-large bids during a six-year span from 2002-07. Their tournament resumes should be the model for a mid-major trying to get into the Big Dance. The combined record for those five teams during the month of February was a stunning 37-4! Read that last sentence again for emphasis. Wow. When the NCAA selection committee talks about picking teams that finish strong, that's what they're looking for.

    11. Furthermore, SIU won the Missouri Valley Conference regular-season title all five years it received an at-large bid. A former member of the NCAA Tournament selection committee once told me that winning the regular season was the BIGGEST reason why the Salukis received at-large bids. He also told me the RPI is highly overrated by the public and the media in terms of the selection of teams. Winning your league, playing well in February and playing a strong non-conference schedule are three of the most important criteria.

    12. So, if you are trying to figure out which MVC teams have a chance, your best bet is to wait and see how the conference race sorts itself out. The league winner or co-winners will have a leg up. Then look at how those teams have played in the final month of the season. If it's not well-above average, they are in trouble. Finally, look at who they played in non-conference.

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