Around mid-afternoon Sunday, the Southern Illinois basketball team slunk into the locker room following another moment of disappointment in a trying season. They had just suffered an 18-point loss at Illinois State. The Salukis digested their 11th defeat along with a postgame meal, then boarded a bus for a four-hour trip back to campus in Carbondale, Ill. In a winter gone haywire for the program already, it is not surprising that things went off-road from there.
As of late Sunday, the Salukis were still on the bus. Blinding snow caused the team's driver to pull to the side of Interstate 57, where the bus became stuck in the accumulation and unable to continue the trip. And there Southern Illinois would stay until around 11:30 p.m., before the bus made it back on the road and to a church in Tuscola, Ill., according to athletic director Mario Moccia, where the team slept overnight.
"I saw some of the kids' tweets about what would you do for a Klondike bar," Moccia told SI.com in a phone interview. "They're pretty resilient. They’re college kids."
Unbelievably enough, a snowstorm stop on a highway shoulder and a church sleepover merely contributed to the pile of misfortune amassed by the Salukis thus far. First, it was head coach Barry Hinson's colorful-but-infamous rant against his team following a Dec. 17 loss to Murray State that went viral. Then it was Hinson taking a brief leave from the team after his son-in-law died suddenly on Christmas morning.
All while the team has shambled to a 4-11 start. And now hours and hours spent on a bus along a highway shut down by a blizzard, then on the pews of a church, another long night of a very different kind for a program adrift in more ways than one.
"It’s been a little bit of an adventure," Moccia said. "We’re hopeful we can return to normal and just focus on basketball instead of press conferences and life situations and travel problems.
"The reality is, you take the situations as they come. It’s the Midwest. The weather isn’t great. We had an unfortunate situation. If the team was rolling right now, it would be just another story. It’s magnified because we’re not playing our best basketball at the moment. When you're in these situations, you try to keep an even keel and a clear head."
It very much could have been worse. A bus carries enough fuel to run all night and therefore keep the team warm in extreme cold. There was reportedly ample food. And though Hinson drove separately from his team and was not on the bus, there are trainers and staffers on board to monitor the players. Meanwhile the university is shut down Monday due to the weather -- but classes were not set to begin until Jan. 13 anyway.
As for why the attempt was made to navigate I-57 through a persistent snowstorm that had lingered for the previous 24 hours, Moccia said he could only speculate that the driver communicated with his company and received enough assurance that the road would be clear. Consider it yet another moment of Southern Illinois' 2013-14 campaign that didn't go quite as planned.
And next up? A trip back to Chicago on Wednesday to face Loyola, which sits just 6-8 overall but put a 32-point throttling on 11-win Missouri State on Sunday. Though first things first: As of around 8:30 a.m. Monday, the Salukis again had pulled off near Mattoon, Ill., thanks to road conditions that remained unfavorable. Much like the condition of just about everything else.
"We'll just have to work through it," Moccia said."I know the kids personally, the guys on the team. When I see them around, I don't see any hanging of heads. We’ll just get them out of this situation, get them some sleep, get them some food and get to the next ballgame."