On the Ball
Southern Illinois used its suffocating D to smother Butler and serve notice that it could be the next upset king of the Valley
CRITICAL ACCLAIM does not always correlate with mass appeal. Take Southern Illinois, the Missouri Valley Conference masters of man-to-man pressure defense. The Salukis improved to 23--5—and No. 13 in the AP poll—after an intensely physical 68--64 win over then No. 13 Butler last Saturday that had the soldout crowd at Hinkle Fieldhouse in Indianapolis up in arms over their rugged style of play.
"Everywhere we go on the road, crowds hate our guts," said SIU coach Chris Lowery after his team won the marquee matchup in the BracketBusters showcase. "They think we're thugs who foul all the time. But we make the game a dogfight, and if you're not tough enough, we wear you down."
The Saluki is Egypt's royal hound, but given the fight in these dogs, their breeding appears to be more blue-collar. Their victory over the Horizon League's Bulldogs featured zero fast-break points and a total of 48 personal fouls. It also served as nationally televised notice that the Salukis—with their pesky senior backcourt duo of Jamaal Tatum and Tony Young—could be this season's most dangerous mid-major come NCAA tournament time.
Southern Illinois has gone to the NCAAs in each of the last five years, but last March it was Valley rivals Wichita State and Bradley that became the tournament darlings, advancing to the Sweet 16 while the Salukis were routed by West Virginia in the first round. Now SIU has such a strong résumé—including a No. 6 ranking in the latest RPI—that it could earn as high as a No. 3 seed on Selection Sunday.
Its defense is rated 17th in the nation in efficiency but is measured internally by the Salukis coaches' Play Hard Chart, which tracks stats such as loose balls secured and dives. "If you have 20 points and seven rebounds, but zero on the Play Hard Chart, Coach will wonder what you were doing," says Tatum, who dropped a team-high 20 points on Butler and was second on the chart with four deflections, three loose-ball recoveries and two dives. (Young was first, with five deflections, three recoveries and two dives.) "This," says Lowery, holding the freshly tallied chart in the locker room afterward, "lets me know who's BS'ing me when they should be hustling."
Lowery learned defensive strategy as an assistant under erstwhile Southern Illinois coach Bruce Weber, who's now at Illinois. Weber was a disciple of Gene Keady's at Purdue, and, says Lowery, "If you go to our practices or ones at Illinois or Purdue [where another Keady protégé, Matt Painter, now coaches], you'll hear the same terminology." By trapping off of ball screens and rotating in the manner of agitated bees, the Salukis create perimeter panic while still recovering to prevent easy inside baskets. "They're so well-schooled in covering up for each other when they're trapping," says Northern Iowa associate head coach Rich Glas. "They know where they're going, and they get there in a hurry."
Randal Falker, a 6'7" junior forward who leads the team in rebounding (7.5 per game) and blocks (58), says the Salukis' goal is "to make it so [opponents] can't breathe." Falker is also a communication design major whose academic projects are often graded on their aesthetics, and he resents the notion that the Salukis' hard-nosed play is anything but beautiful. "To our fans, this is aesthetically pleasing," Falker says.
Indeed, it is a style best appreciated by those applying or applauding the pressure. And that is the beauty of its design.
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Seth Davis's Three-Pointer
1 Winthrop deserves an at-large bid even if it doesn't win the Big South tourney. After beating Missouri State 77--66 last Friday behind seven three-pointers from Michael Jenkins (right), the Eagles had only four losses this season: at North Carolina, Maryland, Wisconsin and Texas A&M.
2 Oklahoma State is on the bubble. The Cowboys, who haven't won a true road game this season, began last week ranked No. 18 in the AP poll, but their loss at home to Missouri last Saturday dropped them to 5--6 in the Big 12.
3 Lee Humphrey has cooled off. At week's end Florida's senior guard had made only 30.0% of his three-pointers in his last three games, including 3 of 8 in Florida's 83--70 loss at Vanderbilt on Saturday.