Southern Illinois coach Matt Painter is grateful that athletic
director Paul Kowalczyk named him to succeed Bruce Weber last
spring after Weber left to coach Illinois, even though Painter
was a 32-year-old assistant with no head coaching experience.
Kowalczyk, however, was simply going on the recommendation of the
players. "None of us wanted to start over with a new guy," 6'7"
senior center Sylvester Willis says. "I saw how Coach Painter
acted in practice and how Coach Weber leaned on him for advice.
There was never a question in my mind he could handle himself as
a head coach."
Painter is one of a handful of former assistants who are thriving
after getting a promotion this season. (Pittsburgh's Jamie Dixon,
Western Michigan's Steve Hawkins and Painter were a combined 66-7
through Sunday.) Despite losing stars Kent Williams and Jermaine
Dearman, who accounted for 40% of the team's scoring last season,
Southern Illinois had clinched its third consecutive Missouri
Valley Conference regular-season title with a 15-0 record (22-2
overall). The Salukis earned their first AP national ranking
since 1976 earlier this season and are ranked No. 16 in the
latest poll. With an RPI of 19, they should earn an NCAA at-large
berth even if they fail to win their league tournament.
Painter has put his own mark on the program by emphasizing the
ball-control, defense-oriented philosophy he learned while a
player under Gene Keady at Purdue. At week's end the Salukis were
ranked ninth in the nation in steals (10.5), they were forcing
17.5 turnovers per game, and they had cut their opponents'
scoring average by almost seven points a game, from 68.2 a year
ago to 61.6. Even though two of Southern lllinois's starters,
junior guards Darren Brooks and Stetson Hairston, were on the
Missouri Valley Conference's all-defense team last year, "we
might be better defensively when we play our subs," says Painter.
Still, what has remained a constant with the Salukis is an
old-school, blue-collar mentality that is best exemplified by the
play of Brooks. He has been mired in a shooting slump all season
(he was making just 28.3% from three-point range through Sunday,
down from 40.4% when he was a freshman), but he was still leading
the conference in scoring (16.7 points a game), and even though
he's just 6'3", Brooks was ranked in the league's top 10 in
steals, rebounds and even blocks. "A lot of guys coming out of
high school aren't interested in playing the way we play," Brooks
says. "But once you get used to winning, you don't want anything
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