Dec. 30, 2013
By Tom Weber
OXFORD, Ohio - With the non-conference season in the books, it's time to take stock of where the Men's Basketball program stands as it heads into MVC play this week.
1. You can't sugarcoat a 4-9 record, which is the lowest non-conference winning percentage in school history, but there is more to the story than wins and losses. Southern has dropped four games by five points or less and played respectably against good teams like Missouri and Saint Louis. You could argue that a break here or there and the win-loss record would look much better.
2. The Salukis have one outstanding player in Desmar Jackson. He is worth buying a ticket to watch. Opposing head coaches rave about him, and NBA scouts are planning trips to Carbondale to take a closer look at the senior guard. Jackson may be the best player in the MVC this year. He is clearly Southern's best scorer, rebounder, passer and defender. Against SIUE last week, he nearly had the school's first triple double in 15 years.
3. Jackson averages 20.8 points, and could become the first Saluki to average more than 20 since Troy Hudson in 1997. The most impressive stat for Jackson is that he's shooting 49 percent from the floor. Hudson shot just 39 percent in 1997, hoisting more than 500 shots to average 21.0 points.
4. The rest of SIU's roster is a work-in-progress. To be honest, parts of it are a full-fledged construction zone. Anthony Beane (11.8 points) has been brilliant at times and ineffective at others -- sometimes in the same game. He's a sophomore, who is getting better, and I still think he can be an All-Conference player before he's done.
5. Jalen Pendleton has put up some fascinating numbers. In the four wins, he's averaged 19.3 points and shot 61 percent from the field. In the nine losses, he's averaged just 9.2 points and converted 47 percent of his attempts. The 6-foot-2 power forward gives certain opponents fits, but teams with just a little bit of front court size have fared much better against him.
7. No other player averages as much as five points for the Salukis. If Jackson or Beane have an off night or get in foul trouble, wins are hard to come by. As Tom Hankins said in his post-game presser yesterday, the team really needs another scorer to step up.
8. In my preseason prediction of a sixth-place Valley finish for SIU, I noted the question marks at point guard and in the front court, and whether or not its perimeter shooting would improve. We're getting some of those answers now. The team ranks No. 333 in the nation in assists and No. 323 in 3-point shooting. Those are not comforting statistics. Southern is also No. 319 in blocked shots. The three post players (Davante Drinkard, Bronson Verhines and Bola Olaniyan) combine to score only 12 percent of the team's points.
9. Last year, SIU was 8-5 in non-conference games but played a Charmin-like schedule that ranked No. 318 in the country. This year's Strength of Schedule was expected to be an upgrade, but currently ranks No. 309 out of 351 teams. In the Valley, only Loyola (325) is weaker. The result is Southern's lowest RPI in school history at 326. The combined record of the three Division I teams SIU has beaten is 5-27.
10. In theory, the MVC will not allow teams to schedule 300+ RPI opponents, but you can get a waiver from the commissioner's office. Southern was granted a waiver to play Austin Peay. Games against Chicago State and SIUE were already in the pipeline from previous contracts. Weak RPIs from Austin Peay (299), Chicago State (243) and SIUE (344) were expected, but the first-round loss in the Gulf Coast Showcase landed Stetson (350) and San Diego (207) on the schedule. Murray State (262), Ball State (291) and Miami (184) further dragged down the strength of schedule, and subsequently the RPI.
11. Although my sixth-place prediction appears optimistic, it's worth noting that there are four other teams in the Valley that also have losing Division I records heading into MVC play -- Northern Iowa (5-6), Evansville (5-6), Bradley (5-8) and Loyola (4-7). Bradley has fallen on hard times having lost six-straight games, including three at home. There's no reason to think Southern won't be competitive against those teams.
12. This season may be a prime example where Year Two of a rebuild turns out to be more difficult than Year One. Gone from last year's 14-win team are Jeff Early, Dantiel Daniels, Kendal Brown-Surles and T.J. Lindsay. Hardly a collection of all-stars, but they played well together down the stretch, which may have led to some undue optimism for this season.
13. There's an interesting parallel with Paul Lusk's rebuild at Missouri State. His Year Two non-conference record at Missouri State in 2012 was 2-10. One year later, the Bears are now 10-2. He needed time to restock the program with better players that fit his system. Next year will be the first season where Southern fields a roster of players entirely recruited by this coaching staff, and that should begin to pay dividends in the win-loss column for the Salukis.